Biologists have found evidence suggesting that the western long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijnii, thought to have gone extinct in Australia thousands of years ago, may still survive in the Kimberley region of the country today.
The western long-beaked echidna and three other extant species, together with the platypus, are the only surviving members of Monotremes – an order of egg-laying mammals.
With a small and declining population confined to the Indonesian portion of the island of New Guinea, this species is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The western long-beaked echidna is also considered extinct in Australia, where fossil remains from the Pleistocene epoch demonstrate that it did occur there tens of thousands of years ago.
Ancient Aboriginal rock art also supports the species’ former presence in Australia. However, no modern record from Australia was known to exist until scientists took a closer look at one particular specimen stored in cabinets in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London.
Previously overlooked, the specimen’s information showed that it was collected from the wild in northwestern Australia in 1901 – thousands of years after they were thought to have gone extinct there. The findings appear in the journal ZooKeys.
“Sometimes while working in museums, I find specimens that turn out to be previously undocumented species,” said lead author Dr Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution. “But in many ways, finding a specimen like this, of such an iconic animal, with such clear documentation from such an unexpected place, is even more exciting.”
The re-examined specimen in London reveals that the species was reproducing in Australia at least until the early 20th century.
It was collected in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia by naturalist John T. Tunney in 1901, on a collecting expedition for the private museum of Lord L. Walter Rothschild in England. Despite collecting many species of butterflies, birds and mammals, no full report on his specimens has ever been published.
“The discovery of the western long-beaked echidna in Australia is astonishing,” said Prof Tim Flannery of Macquarie University in Sydney. “It highlights the importance of museum collections, and how much there is still to learn about Australia’s fauna.”
Learning whether the western long-beaked echidna still exists in Australia today will take time.
“The next step will be an expedition to search for this animal,” Dr Helgen said. “We’ll need to look carefully in the right habitats to determine where it held on, and for how long, and if any are still out there.”
“We believe there may be memories of this animal among Aboriginal communities, and we’d like to learn as much about that as we can.”
“With the species in danger of extinction, finding Australian survivors or understanding why and when they vanished is an important scientific goal. We hold out hope that somewhere in Australia, long-beaked echidnas still lay their eggs.”
Bibliographic information: Helgen KM et al. 2012. Twentieth century occurrence of the Long-Beaked Echidna Zaglossus bruijnii in the Kimberley region of Australia. ZooKeys 255: 103–132; doi: 10.3897/zookeys.255.3774