Elusive Echidnas

A rare mammal called the long-beaked echidna, presumed extinct in Australia, may still be lurking in remote parts of the country’s northwest region, scientists speculate.

The long-beaked echidna is one of just a few types of living mammals that lay eggs. (The others are the short-beaked echidna and the platypus.) Scientists thought that long-beaked echidnas, which include three surviving species, remained only in New Guinea. While these animals were known to inhabit Australia once, people assumed they were long gone.

But a neglected museum specimen may suggest otherwise, according to a new study in ZooKeys. A naturalist named John Tunney collected the specimen in Australia’s West Kimberley region in 1901. He didn’t write down the animal’s name, which “may indicate that Tunney was uncertain exactly what species he had before him,” the authors write.

A taxonomist later labelled the critter as a long-beaked echidna but never published the identification in a scientific paper. The authors of the present study concluded that the specimen was a Western long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijnii — suggesting that these animals lived in Australia into the 1900s.

“We hold out a small optimism that Long-beaked echidnas might yet dig burrows and hunt invertebrates in at least one hidden corner of Australia’s north-west,” the team writes. The idea isn’t completely far-fetched: One of the researchers spoke to an Aboriginal woman who seemed to remember a similar creature. Roberta Kwok | 3 January 2013

Source: Helgen, K.M. et al. 2012. Twentieth century occurrence of the Long-Beaked Echidna Zaglossus bruijnii in the Kimberley region of Australia. ZooKeys doi: 10.3897/zookeys.255.3774.

Image © Tim Laman