Over sixty years after it was first recorded, an expedition team has rediscovered a bizarre, egg-laying mammal in one of the least explored regions of the world. Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, named after the famous broadcaster, was captured in photos and video footage using remote trail cameras in Indonesia.
The expedition also made other remarkable finds. These include a bird lost to science in 2008, a new genus of tree-dwelling shrimp, countless new species of insects and a previously unknown cave system. This was despite the challenges posed by the inhospitable terrain, including malaria, earthquakes, heat and venomous animals.
The echidna is a monotreme, an evolutionarily distinct group of egg-laying mammals. The species is so special as it’s one of only five remaining species of monotremes. Echidnas are already fairly difficult to find as they are shy, nocturnal and live in burrows — but Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna was only recorded in 1961 in the Cyclops Mountains.
To find one, the researchers deployed over 80 trail cameras and made multiple ascents into the mountains, climbing over 11,000 meters in the process. For four weeks, the cameras recorded no sign of the echidna. But their luck changed on the last day, with the trail camera finally capturing shots of the elusive creature — the first photographs ever obtained.
James Kempton, a biologist from the University of Oxford who conceived and led the expedition, said the animal has the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater, and the feet of a mole. “Because of it’s hybrid appearance, it shares its name with a creature of Greek mythology that is half human, half serpent,” Kempton said in a news release, referring to the name “echidna”.
A treasure trove of discoveries
As well as searching for the echidna, the researchers did the first comprehensive assessment of invertebrate, reptile, amphibian, and mammal life in the Cyclops Mountains. They worked with local guides to create makeshift laboratories in the heart of the jungle, using benches and desks that they created from branches and vines.
The team made a wealth of discoveries. These included the discovery of numerous insect species previously unknown to science, as well as the reidentification of Mayr’s honeyeater (Ptiloprora mayri), a bird that had eluded scientific observation since 2008. This bird is named in honor of the renowned evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr.
A particularly impressive finding was an entirely new genus of ground and tree-dwelling shrimp. “We were quite shocked to discover this shrimp in the heart of the forest, because it is a remarkable departure from the typical seaside habitat for these animals,” Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou, the lead entomologist of the expedition, said in a news release.
The team also uncovered a wealth of subterranean species, such as blind spiders, blind harvestmen, and a whip scorpion, all previously unknown to science, within an undiscovered cave system. One of the researchers accidentally fell through a moss-covered entrance and the team decided to explore it.
However, making these discoveries wasn’t easy. During one of the trips to the cave system, an earthquake forced them to evacuate. Davranoglou broke his arm in two places, one team member got malaria and another one had a leech attached to his eye for a day and a half. Not to mention the constant biting of mosquitos and ticks.
“The landscape is magical, at once enchanting and dangerous, like something out of a Tolkien book,” Kempton said. “In this environment, the camaraderie between the expedition members was fantastic, with everyone helping to keep up morale. In the evening, we exchanged stories around the fire, surrounded by the hoots and peeps of frogs.”
A long way to go
Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna stands as the flagship species of the Cyclops Mountains, representing the region’s remarkable biodiversity, the researchers said. They now hope to use this rediscovery as a catalyst, drawing attention to the conservation requirements of the Cyclops and Indonesian New Guinea as a whole.
They are committed to a sustained monitoring of the echidna, ensuring ongoing support for its well-being. Central to this endeavor is the NGO YAPPENDA, dedicated to safeguarding the natural environment of Indonesian New Guinea by empowering Indigenous Papuans. The NGO was a key partner to the researchers during their work.
Having only sorted a fraction of the material collected, the researchers believe they will make further discoveries of new species during the coming months. They will name many of these after the Papuan members of the expedition. Besides animal specimens, they also collected over 75 kilograms of rock samples for further geological analysis.
This could help to better understand how and when the Cyclops Mountains originally formed. They are believed to have formed 10 million years ago when an island arc in the Pacific Ocean collided with the New Guinea mainland. Further studying this process and achieving biological discoveries will contribute to understanding the origin of the region’s biodiversity.