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"Sometimes while working in museums, I find specimens that turn out to be previously undocumented species," Helgen, who has published his findings in ZooKeys, said. "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."
Helgen believes that the fact the western long-beak echidna survived until 1901 means there is a chance that it could still roam Australia today. The species still dwells on the island of New Guinea, but is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List due to forest loss and hunting.
Only four species of echidna are found on Earth. One, the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), is still found in Australia. While the other three—all long-beaked echidnas and all considered Critically Endangered—are only found on New Guinea. Long-beaked echidnas are considerably larger than their short-beaked relative, weight up to 36 pounds (16.5 kilograms), more than triple the weight of the short-beaked echidna which weighs at most only 11 pounds (5 kilograms). In addition, as their names suggest, long-beaked echidnas sport a much longer snout. They are different enough from their short-beaked cousins that they are in their own genus, Zaglossus.
Notably the long-beaked echidnas are the top three mammals on the Zoological Society of London's EDGE list, which ranks mammals by combing their evolutionary distinctness and the threat of extinction. Echidnas are monotremes, which mean they lay eggs instead of giving birth to live offspring.
Helgen was by no means expecting to discover a specimen of the long-beaked echidna in 20th Century museum specimens, since the species was only known to inhabit Australia through Pleistocene fossils and aboriginal cave art. But he found the animal—misidentified as a short-beaked echidna—amid collections acquired by naturalist John T. Tunney on Mount Anderson in the West Kimberley region of Australia. The specimen, which still sported Tunney's original tags, was collected for the private museum of Lord L. Walter Rothschild. After Rothschild's death, his full collection was given to London's Natural History Museum where Helgen found the specimen.
"[The discovery] highlights the importance of museum collections, and how much there is still to learn about Australia's fauna," says Tim Flannery of Macquarie University in Sydney.
Helgen, who carefully studied the 1901 documentation to make certain it was not a mistake, now says its time to look again for the animal in Australia.
"The next step will be an expedition to search for this animal. 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."
He says one way to determine the fate of the animal will be to interview indigenous Australians: "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." Scientists have already encountered oral histories in the remote region that hint at the possibility of long-beaked echidnas surviving until at least a generation ago.
A relict population in Australia would not only prove a shocking discovery, but—given the state of the species in New Guinea—may also be vital to making sure the western long-beaked echidna doesn't vanish for good.
"We hold out hope that somewhere in Australia, long-beaked echidnas still lay their eggs," Helgen says.
A long-beaked echidna in New Guinea. Photo by: Tim Laman.
The short beaked echidna is a common species in Australia and the only echidna not considered Critically Endangered. Photo by: Tim Laman.
The duck-billed platypus is the world's only other monotreme beyond the four species of echidnas. Photo by: Tim Laman.
CITATION: Kristofer M. Helgen, Roberto Portela Miguez, James L. Kohen, Lauren E. Helgen. Twentieth century occurrence of the Long-Beaked Echidna Zaglossus bruijnii in the Kimberley region of Australia. ZooKeys. 255: 103–132 (2012). doi: 10.3897/zookeys.255.3774.
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