It has the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater and the feet of a mole: in the Cyclops Mountains in the Indonesian province of Papua, scientists have spotted the Zaglossus attenboroughi, an echidna that was thought extinct.
Never confuse an echidna with a porcupine. Echidnas, like platypuses, belong to a small order of egg-laying mammals that occur naturally only in Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea. There are several species, but the ‘fur hedgehog’ Zaglossus attenboroughi, named after British biologist and television producer Sir David Attenborough, was thought to be extinct. After 60 years that appears not to be the case.
A team of scientists from Oxford University made the discovery. The researchers had almost completed a four-week expedition when a camera recorded the animal.
“We were euphoric and relieved, after so long in the field with no results,” said biologist James Kempton, who had gone to retrieve the last memory card from the mountains. The scientists had set up a total of eighty cameras.
‘I shouted to my colleagues: “We found it, we found it”. I walked from my desk to the living room and hugged everyone.’
Echidnas are shy, nocturnal animals that are very difficult to observe. The Zaglossus attenboroughi had not been seen since the Dutch botanist Pieter van Royen brought a dead specimen back from Papua in 1961. Other species of echidnas are often spotted in Australia and New Guinea.
It was quite an undertaking to achieve this result. The Kempton team survived an earthquake, malaria and one even got a leech on his eyeball. They worked with residents of the nearby village of Yongsu Sapari to explore the remote area in northeastern Papua.
The echidna is embedded in the local culture. It is ‘used’ to resolve conflicts. When there is friction between two parties, one is sent into the forest to look for the echidna and the other to the ocean to look for a marlin, the village elders said. Both animals are so difficult to find that it often takes decades or even several generations to track them down. At the end of that long search, the animals symbolize the end of the conflict.
The Zaglossus attenboroughi was named in 1998 when it was described as a new species by Australian scientists. It was named after Sir Attenborough because ‘he contributed greatly to the public appreciation of the fauna and flora of New Guinea’.