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The Long-beaked Echidna: can we save the earth’s oldest living mammal?

  • The Long-beaked Echidna is genetically and physically like no other animal alive on earth today, and it embodies traits not seen commonly since the dawn of mammals.
  • These species also happen to make a favorite meal for the more than 800 distinct tribal cultures that continue to rely heavily on hunting for protein.
  • The last of these wildly unusual but docile animals now hold out in New Guinea’s most remote, rugged mountains, but innovative local and international partnerships could help rescue them from extinction.
Echidnas have strong legs, well adapted for digging. They dig their claws into the soil and push it aside, making it almost appear as if they are sinking straight down into the earth. They sometimes vanish below ground for more than 24 hours, though no one knows with what purpose. Photo by Muse Opiang.

Thousands of sometimes argumentative pages have been written about conservation priorities, advocating that the more threatened or ecologically important a species is, the more it deserves immediate protection and a big conservation budget.

Another school of thought emphasizes evolutionary/genetic differentiation — contending that a species with a highly divergent genetic lineage should have priority over, say, a barely distinct sister species to an unthreatened species.

Using genetic distinctiveness criteria, few mammals rank higher than New Guinea’s Long-beaked Echidna. With that concept in mind, the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) Conservation Program emblazoned its logo with the echidna’s image.

Just what are echidnas?

Picture a 10-20 pound mammal with spines similar to those of a hedgehog, but lacking teeth and with a primitive jaw comprised of a single bone with no ability to bite or chew. Instead it has a long boney tube called a “beak” protruding from its face, through which it sucks up food, mainly earthworms and other soft invertebrates, just like a kid slurping spaghetti. Now picture that beak having electro-receptors able to detect the faintest electrical fields produced by its underground worm and insect prey.

Researcher with a Long-beaked Echidna that has been fitted with a radio transmitter before release. These gentle animals do not have teeth or even the ability to bite; all they can do is poke and slurp up worms through their tube-like “beak.” Photo by David Gillison

Bizarre? That’s just the beginning. This mammal lays eggs, like a platypus. Those eggs incubate and hatch in a pouch, like a marsupial. Females lack teats; instead, milk oozes from glands in the pouch that the baby, called a puggle, likely laps up from the mother’s skin — it’s a behavior no scientists have ever witnessed.

These primitive mammals have the lowest body temperature of any mammal. They also have a single opening for defecation, urination and reproduction, the cloaca, as do reptiles; hence they are monotremes — like their famous cousin the platypus.

Echidnas are thought to be the last living relicts of early mammals, allowing us to see in the flesh some of the transitional traits that may have occurred when our reptilian ancestors began evolving toward modern mammals.

Ken Aplin, one of the few mammalogists familiar with the species in the field, thinks echidnas should be one of science’s top conservation priorities. “These are incredibly precious mammals, the only living survivors of a phase of mammal evolution that occurred during the dawn of the Age of Dinosaurs,” he says. “For me the LBE [Long-beaked Echidna] is an icon of a nearly lost ‘ancient world’.”

A hard to classify species

You might assume that one of the most primitive and distinctive living mammals on earth today would have been the focus of much research by now, but that isn’t the case — almost nothing is known about them.

The beak of the Long-beaked Echidna has electro-receptors that are thought to help the animals detect prey, mostly earthworms, when they probe into the soft mud of the rainforest floor. Photo by Larry Barnes

Even the delineation of the species has proved problematic. Early taxonomists tended to split-off new species based on what we now consider weak and tenuous criteria, creating a sometimes confusing hodgepodge of named species. So it was for the echidna.

Then in 1969 — as taxonomists adopted a broader definition of what constitutes a species — the many echidna variants that had earlier been classified as full species were all merged into a single species called the Long-beaked Echidna, Zaglossus bruijnii, with the proviso that there was still too little information to really be sure how many species there were in the wild.

In 1998 that classification altered yet again. Examination of all specimens and data created a new consensus that there are three species of Long-beaked Echidna, all endemic to New Guinea: the Western Long-beaked Echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii), Eastern Long-beaked Echidna (Z. bartoni), and Attenborough’s Long-beaked Echidna (Z. attenboroughi).

Researcher Muse Opiang holding an echidna that has been tagged with a radio transmitter around its left rear ankle. The animal’s neck simply merges into the head, so a collar just slips off. The skin is quite loose around the body, so they can wiggle right out of a harness like Houdini. The only way Opiang could attach a transmitter was on the ankle. Photo by David Gillison

This reconfiguration drastically changed the Long-beaked Echidna’s conservation status. What might have been considered a single widespread, and less threatened species up until 1998, was now considered three species, all Critically Endangered and each requiring dedicated conservation interventions.

Genetic studies of the three species are still urgently needed to ascertain just how many genetically distinct populations still exist. Such knowledge is the fundamental first step toward conservation for any animal, but is still lacking for Zaglossus.

Virtually unstudied in its habitat

Amazingly, until very recently there was not a single field study of any of the three species of Long-beaked Echidna. To date, biologist Muse Opiang is the only person to have succeeded in doing a field study of the animals.

Opiang, a Papua New Guinea (PNG) citizen, first learned about echidnas from rural Pawai’ian hunters while promoting conservation with the PNG Research and Conservation Foundation in the mid-1990s. The hunters told him of a strange, spiked creature with a beak that their legends claimed to be the offspring of a python. Opiang was not a biologist at the time. But when he learned that no echidna field research had ever been conducted, he decided to become a biologist so he could study the animals.

Two echidnas killed by an indigenous hunter. Hunting represents the greatest threat to these and many other species in New Guinea where millions of people still live directly off the resources of their traditional forests. Photo by Andrew Mack.

Opiang is now a scientist with the PNG Institute of Biological Research, and he has produced landmark research on the Long-beaked Echidna. He and his team of Pawai’ia hunters-turned-research-assistants, have spent thousands of person-nights scouring the rainforest for the nocturnal echidna.

They’ve managed to find and observe more individuals than any other biologists, and have radio-tracked echidnas to learn about their habits and home range. What they learned, however, just posed more questions and deepened the mystery. They observed, for example, that echidnas would disappear for days at a time underground (they are superb burrowers), but no one knows for what purpose.

The challenges of Echidna conservation

New Guinea is home to the world’s third largest remaining block of rainforest, after the Amazon and Congo basins. By some measures it is better off than many of the world’s tropical forests: there are few roads. Rugged mountains make access difficult, and much of the timber there is not as valuable as in other places, such as in Borneo’s rapidly disappearing dipterocarp forests.

The same geographic challenges that have protected New Guinea’s forests and wildlife from modernity have also made it difficult for biologists like Aplin and Opiang to study Long-beaked Echidnas.

Aboriginal rock art from Arnhem Land in Australia depicting the long, down-curved beak of the echidna. An overlooked museum specimen, collected in 1901 in Australia, was identified as a Long-beaked Echidna in 2012. So the species is either recently extinct there or still could exist, unknown to scientists, in the remotest parts of the Kimberley region. Photo by G. Chaloupka courtesy of Zookeys licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

But the animal is no stranger to New Guinea’s indigenous people, who inhabit almost every part of Earth’s second largest island, living off the resources of their traditional lands. Hunting and fishing provide the dietary protein for the vast majority of New Guineans, and echidnas have long been part of that meal plan.

Research in the broader area surrounding Opiang’s echidna study site has quantified just how important wild game is for the local people. Long-beaked Echidnas are currently very hard for hunters to find there. The animals have largely been hunted out near villages, and hunters must travel far from settlements to locate the animals. Still, they are highly prized for the cook pot.

In the slightly less than seven months of the study, hunters from just 33 clans in two tribes, with fewer than 5,000 people in total, killed and consumed 16 Long-beaked Echidnas. That’s more than 25% of all the known specimens in the world ever collected! There are over 800 tribes in Papua New Guinea, and thousands of clans among the population of 7.3 million people — most with a taste for echidna. “Loss of suitable habitat by major forest clearance and hunting are the biggest threats,” to the animals according to Opiang,

Naïve animals that evolved in a formerly safe island world

New Guinea has no large mammals. There are no primates, no deer, tapir or bovines. The island’s largest native mammals are tree kangaroos and the Long-beaked Echidnas.

There are also no large predators, no native cats or dogs. Echidnas evolved in a world with few threats, and have slow metabolisms. They never developed fear of predators, nor do they have the energy for quick escape. You can walk right up to an echidna, and it pretty much carries on with its business, probing the soil for worms.

Researcher Muse Opiang with his son in field camp. Finding echidnas meant months of searching at night with the help of several local men. Opiang moved into a bush house with his family and spent years dedicated to studying these rare and elusive animals. No one else has studied these unique and primitive mammals in the field. Photo by David Gillison

With the arrival of humans in New Guinea, the animals were adopted as a traditional food item — a custom established when human populations were much smaller and game populations much larger. Evidence indicates that echidna populations have already collapsed near villages and the trails traversed by hunters. Now, new mining and logging operations are opening access to very remote areas where Aplin says, “populations of LBEs immediately become vulnerable to hunters, especially if they are using trained hunting dogs.” The growing pressure from hunting has caused all three species to be listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Sir David’s Long-beaked Echidna — named for the famed wildlife documentary filmmaker — is the most threatened of all echidna species. Zaglossus attenboroughi, described from just a single specimen collected in 1961, is believed to be confined to maybe 50 square kilometers (20 square miles) in New Guinea’s Cyclops Mountains. Conservationists have interviewed locals there who know of the animal, and they have also found spoor in the vicinity distinctive to Long-beaked Echidna. There is cause for optimism some individuals may persist, but for how long is the question. The species could be gone already, leaving behind a single lone museum specimen.

Quietly and without fanfare, populations of these bizarre and unassuming ancestors to all mammals may be winking out of existence, one mountain at a time.

Opiang does hold out hope however. He says that Long-beaked Echidna populations are still robust in some of the most remote parts of the most rugged mountains, like the Saruwageds and the Owen Stanleys — which stopped the Japanese Imperial Army’s southward-surging juggernaut in World War II. Aplin agrees and believes some populations in extremely remote areas are secure, for now.

Do echidnas, the mammal with a long past, have a future?

The echidna’s predicament raises a question for conservationists and for society in general. Should we be satisfied if a species only persists in the most remote reaches of its range, where no one can see or experience it? Is it enough that it is not extinct? To the hundreds of New Guinean tribal cultures where biodiversity still plays a key role, will those cultures persist in all their richness with the absence of the animals that shape it? Will the Pawai’ia still tell a tale of how the echidna was born from a python when Pawai’ia forests are no longer home to either echidnas or pythons?

Long-Beaked Echidnas have spines that provide modest protection. Unlike porcupine spines, they do not have barbs or come free easily. They are no protection from humans and dogs, their main predators. Photo by Larry Barnes

Conservationists like Opiang and his colleagues at the Research and Conservation Foundation and PNG Institute of Biological Research are not content thinking echidnas are safe in a few extremely remote havens. They’re working to conserve biodiversity in Papua New Guinea as part of the cultures and lifestyles of the islands. As a result, they struggle daily with challenges few Western conservationists can fathom.

Nearly all of Papua New Guinea remains under the traditional tenure of over 800 distinct cultures, each with its own language. Parks and protected areas, as known in much of the rest of the world, are simply not possible. There is no strong central government to create or manage them. There is no way to regulate hunting via legislation and enforcement.

Large international conservation organizations and agencies have pumped tens of millions of dollars into conservation in New Guinea over the past two decades. And there is almost nothing to show for all that spending. Many of the usual strategies conservationists use around the globe have been tried and (expensively) shown not to work in New Guinea.

But there might be new approaches, and homegrown programs that can work where others have failed. Opiang has partnered effectively with Pawai’ia landowners and established an echidna conservation area within the larger Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The landowners have voluntarily agreed not to hunt there. As a result, Opiang believes the rare animals have at least doubled in numbers in that area, and are becoming much easier to find for research.

Nearby, the Hogave Conservation Area was set aside as a no-hunting zone by a single visionary tribal chief more than 30 years ago. Elsewhere in Papua-New Guinea, conservation groups like the Tenkile Conservation Alliance and Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project have joined with national and international conservationists, committed landowners, and major donors from abroad to establish local wildlife management programs. Wise and modest investment by the international community, linked to local initiatives seems to be showing good results for the preservation of the echidna and Papua New Guinea’s biodiversity.

Mammalogists often use ear tags to identify individuals in their research. But Echidnas do not have external ears to attach a tag. Opiang used color-coded plastic tubing, glued to spines to identify individuals (visible on the right forelimb). Quiet, rare, nocturnal, hard-to-tag and found in remotest parts of New Guinea, field study of echidnas presents tremendous challenges. Photo by Muse Opiang

Long-beaked Echidnas can tell us a lot about the evolution of mammals. The species needs to be conserved for scientific and ethical reasons, and its distinctive genome should make it a top international conservation priority. Still, echidnas belong to the cultures and resource users of New Guinea, whose members remain free to hunt and eat them.

These gentle creatures of the night have quietly walked and burrowed the rainforest floor for millennia. They’ve already survived one major mass extinction — the meteor strike that eliminated the dinosaurs 65-million years ago. Now, with their numbers much diminished, they inhabit a last stronghold in New Guinea. With the latest mass extinction underway, they are being reduced to even smaller refugia in the most isolated and rugged parts of that island.

Conservation scientists like Aplin and Opiang think that these primitive egg-laying mammals can persist with our help and continue for millions of years more, sharing the planet with their newer and hopefully wiser mammalian cousins.

Andrew L. Mack is the author of the book, Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest that addresses these and other conservation issues in greater detail.

 

References:

Baillie, J.E.M., S.T. Turvey and C. Waterman. (2009). Survival of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi in New Guinea. Oryx 43: 146-148.

Flannery, T. F. and C. P. Groves (1998). A revision of the genus Zaglossus (Monotremata, Tachyglossidae), with description of new species and subspecies. Mammalia 62: 367-396.

Mack, A.L. and C.P. West. (2005). Ten thousand tonnes of small animals: wildlife use in Papua New Guinea, a vital resource in need of management. Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 61.

Opiang, M. D. Home ranges, movement and den use in Long-beaked Echidnas, Zaglossus bartoni, from Papua New Guinea. Journal of Mammalogy 90: 340-346.

Review questions for educators

These questions can help provide a framework for exploring topics presented in this story.

  • What is the Long-beaked Echidna?
  • Why is the Long-beaked Echidna unusual?
  • Why is little known about the Long-beaked Echidna?
  • Why is the Long-beaked Echidna endangered?
  • Why is protecting the Long-beaked Echidna difficult?