Extinct echidna may be alive and well in WA

By Joanna Egan 11 January 2013
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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.

Largest egg-laying mammal hailed from the Kimberley

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.

Rare echidna from Australia a “significant discovery”

“This is an extremely significant discovery,” says Professor Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s leading mammologists. “I was extremely surprised, and was at first sceptical, 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.

Krisofer Helgen holds a long-beaked echidna in New Guinea. (Credit: Tim Laman)