Puggle births a boon for rare PNG echidnas

By Joanna Egan 28 November 2013
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Four puggles have been born at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in an effort to save the long-beaked echidna.

FOUR BABY ECHIDNAS, or puggles, born in Queensland are being hailed as a lifeline for their critically endangered cousins in Papua New Guinea.

The Australian native short-beaked echidna puggles were born over the past two months at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) on the Gold Coast, as part of a research program run in conjunction with the University of Queensland (UQ).

Through the study, researchers aim to learn more about the physiology and mating behaviour of the short-beaked echidna, common throughout Australia but notoriously difficult to breed, in an effort to save the long-beaked echidna, which is endemic to PNG.

The long-beaked echidna is fighting a losing battle against habitat loss and overhunting.

Fight for the long-beaked echidna

Lead researcher Dr Steve Johnston, a UQ reproductive biologist, has been involved in the program since it began six years ago. “The short-beaked echidna is common but cryptic and up until a few years ago, it was thought to be almost impossible to breed in captivity,” he says.

The new arrivals bring the program’s total births to six, following the birth of two puggles at Currumbin last year. “Producing four puggles out of about five attempts this year was a big surprise,” Steve says. “The success has changed our expectations and we’re now looking at getting a baby nearly every time we try.”

Already, the program has led to significant discoveries about the mating behaviour and reproductive cycles of echidnas.

“It was thought that females could only have one puggle every three years, but we have now had a female produce a puggle two years in a row,” says Andrea Wallage, a UQ PhD student involved in the breeding program. “We also discovered that females can go through multiple oestrus cycles each season.”

Puggle breeding caught on video

The echidnas at CWS are monitored around the clock via a series of video cameras. “We’ve been able to capture footage of some of the matings,” says Steve. “That’s been really helpful in giving us the fine detail we need to properly understand their biology and it is one of the secrets of our success.”

Using the cameras, researchers have detected a probable link between an echidna’s body temperature and its breeding rate. Prior to breeding, echidnas put on significant amounts of weight. As a result, their metabolism increases, helping to sustain thermoregulation, which encourages reproduction. By placing infrared lamps in the breeding enclosures, the researchers have seen an increase in breeding rates.

Steve and his team hope that, in the long-term, their discoveries will help bring the long-beaked echidna back from the brink.

“We’re very keen to develop our skill base with breeding short-beaks so that ultimately we can get directly involved in a captive breeding program in Papua New Guinea, or potentially even create an insurance population of long-beaks here in Australia,” says Steve.

In the meantime, Steve has invited staff from Port Moresby Nature Park, PNG, to train with him in Queensland. “The long-beaked is a different animal,” he says. “There are going to be changes that we’ll need to make, but in terms of its reproductive biology, there are certainly lessons we can learn from the short-beaked.”

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