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201306Jan21:27

Long-​beaked echidna may not be a thing of the past for Australia

Infor­ma­tion
pub­lished 06 Jan­u­ary 2013 | mod­i­fied 06 Jan­u­ary 2013
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Long-beaked echidnaThe west­ern long-​beaked echidna, one of the world’s five egg-​laying species of mam­mal, became extinct in Aus­tralia thou­sands of years ago…or did it? Smith­son­ian sci­en­tists and col­leagues have found evi­dence sug­gest­ing that not only did these ani­mals sur­vive in Aus­tralia far longer than pre­vi­ously thought, but that they may very well still exist in parts of the coun­try today. The team’s find­ings are pub­lished in the Decem­ber 28, 2012 issue of the jour­nal Zookeys.

With a small and declin­ing pop­u­la­tion con­fined to the Indone­sian por­tion of the island of New Guinea, the west­ern long-​beaked echidna (Zaglos­sus brui­jnii) is listed as “Crit­i­cally Endan­gered” on the Inter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature’s Red List of Threat­ened Species. It 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.

Some­times while work­ing in muse­ums, I find spec­i­mens that turn out to be pre­vi­ously undoc­u­mented species, 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.
Kristofer Hel­gen, Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion, lead author and the sci­en­tist to first report the sig­nif­i­cance of the echidna spec­i­men »


Long-​beaked echid­nas are known as monotremes―a small and prim­i­tive order of mam­mals that lay eggs rather than give birth to live young. The platy­pus, the short-​beaked echidna, and the three species of long-​beaked echidna (West­ern, East­ern and Sir David Attenborough’s) are the only monotremes that still exist. The platy­pus is found only in east­ern Aus­tralia, the short-​beaked echidna is found in Aus­tralia and New Guinea, and the long-​beaked echid­nas were pre­vi­ously known as liv­ing ani­mals only from the island of New Guinea. Long-​beaked echid­nas, which grow to twice the size of the platy­pus or the short-​beaked echidna, are beach-​ball sized mam­mals cov­ered in coarse blackish-​brown hair and spines. They use their long, tubu­lar snout to root for inver­te­brates in the forests and mead­ows of New Guinea. Among many pecu­liar attrib­utes, repro­duc­tion is one of the most unique―females lay a sin­gle leath­ery egg directly into their pouch where it hatches in about 10 days.

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 (some new to sci­ence at the time), no full report on his spec­i­mens has ever been pub­lished. The col­lec­tion, includ­ing the long-​beaked echidna spec­i­men, was then trans­ferred to the Nat­ural His­tory Museum in Lon­don in 1939 after Rothschild’s death. It was another 70 years before Hel­gen vis­ited the museum in Lon­don and came across the spec­i­men with the orig­i­nal Tun­ney labels, which both chal­lenged pre­vi­ous think­ing about the species’ recent dis­tri­b­u­tion and offered insight into where it may still occur.

“The dis­cov­ery of the west­ern long-​beaked echidna in Aus­tralia is aston­ish­ing,” said Pro­fes­sor Tim Flan­nery of Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity in Syd­ney, refer­ring to the new study. “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,” 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.” To find it, Hel­gen hopes to draw on his expe­ri­ence with the species in New Guinea and to inter­view those who know the north­ern Aus­tralian bush best. “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,” he said.

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,” said Hel­gen.


(Source: PEN­SOFT news, 03.01.2013)
UN Biodiversity decade

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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