The Long-Beaked Echidna - A species that may disappear from our planet without an assisted range extension

 Long-Beaked EchidnaWhile pleistocene climate change has often been blamed for the extinction of the long-beaked echidna in Australia, it is highly likely that this species was highly prized by Australian Aboriginies, and may have been decimated by their hunting practices.

Some recent research however, suggests that perhaps it hung on for longer than scientists first thought.

The long-beaked echidna is now facing extinction in Papua New Guinea, where traditional taboos on hunting this species have been broken down in recent times.

Perhaps it is time to consider returning it to its former home of mainland Australia? It is a contender for reintroduction, and as its primary food source is worms, with the occasional ant or thousand thrown in, reintroducing this species would have little consequential impact on the Australian ecosystem other than to enrich it.

The story to follow was published by the Australian Geographic in January 2013. It’s an interesting development, and supports the reintroduction of this species, particularly if it has gone extinct in very recent times.

Extinct echidna may be alive and well in WA
Story by Joanna Egan
Australian Geographic. First published January 2013.

Tantalising research suggests the long-beaked echidna, thought long extinct in Australia, could still exist in the Kimberley. An echidna thought to have become extinct in Australia some 10,000 years ago could still be living in the nation’s north-west, new research suggests.

The largest egg-laying mammal alive, the western long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii) is currently known only to inhabit New Guinea, where the species is critically endangered. While fossil records and Aboriginal rock art indicate the species once lived in Australia, researchers have long thought the population disappeared from the landscape during the last ice age.

However, the recent discovery of a western long-beaked echidna specimen collected in the Kimberley region in 1901 confirms the species survived in north-west Australia into the twentieth century. This information raises questions about whether the species could still be alive there today.

Dr Kristofer Helgen, a research zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the US, came across the specimen (skin and skull) during a 2009 visit to the Natural History Museum in London. A research paper published last month in the journal ZooKeys reveals his findings. “I wasn’t surprised that it was a western long-beaked echidna, that was clear to me straight away,” says Kristofer, who then recognised the specimen’s tags as those of Australian naturalist John Tunney. Tunney’s handwritten notes on the tag indicated the specimen was collected at Mount Anderson, about 90km southeast of Derby, in WA.

“I was stopped in my tracks upon seeing the tag, realising it was John Tunney’s, and then realising that the data on the tag was telling me that this thing was collected in the western Kimberley,” he says. More than a century ago, when the specimen was collected, it was misidentified as a short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus). When researchers later identified it as a long-beaked echidna, its place of origin was not remarked upon. After carefully studying the specimen’s historical records, Kristofer and his team confirmed the authenticity of Tunney’s tags and conclusively matched them to the specimen.

This is an extremely significant discovery,” says Professor Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s leading mammologists. “I was extremely surprised, and was at first skeptical, but Kris Helgen has made such a compelling case that I’m convinced the specimen is genuinely from Australia.”

The discovery provides new hope for the species’ survival. “To now have a notion that it was recently in the Kimberley and could possibly be there still, that changes a lot of our thinking,” says Kristofer.

He explains that if the species does still exist in Australia, it would likely comprise a different gene pool to the New Guinea populations, and may have adapted to survive in different habitats. “With different ecology and different genetics, if it is found to occur in Australia, I imagine it would give much greater hope for the survival of the species,” he says. Tim agrees and hopes the discovery will prompt a re-examination of all existing archaeological and zoological echidna material from across northern Australia.“This is potentially great news for the species, which is under threat from hunting in New Guinea,” he says.

“This discovery highlights just how critically important museum collections are as repositories of biological knowledge. They are irreplaceable.” Kristofer hopes a live western long-beaked echidna will be discovered in the Kimberley. “I want to let wildlife experts, state officials and even people on holiday in the Kimberley know this is a possibility and to keep their eyes open for it,” he says.

Please leave your comments below…