It has the spines of a hedgehog, the long snout of an anteater and the legs of a mole. And it is named after the British biologist and documentary maker Sir David Attenborough: the Zaglossus attenboroughi, or Attenborough’s fur hedgehog colloquially. Not that you encounter them regularly: a Dutch botanist discovered the species in 1961, but that is also the only time the animal has been seen by humans.
Until a group of scientists from Oxford University went on a four-week expedition in June to the Cyclops Mountains, on the border of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Only at the very end of the expedition, on July 22, did biologist James Kempton see the images on the last memory card of the more than eighty game cameras in the forest that the team checked. The wildlife camera had recorded how the small animal walked through the undergrowth.
“A great feeling of euphoria,” is how Kempton describes the moment he ‘rediscovered’ the rare fur hedgehog. “And relief too, because we had been doing field work for so long without reward, until the very last day.”
Kempton’s team’s expedition turned out to be a hellish undertaking. During their passage, the area was struck by an earthquake and malaria broke out. One of the expedition members got a leech attached to his eyeball. The expedition members who were still there at the end shared in the joy. “I shouted, ‘We found it,’ ran from my desk to the living room and hugged them,” Kempton said.
The team describes the mammal as a shy, nocturnal caveman. It looks like a hodgepodge of other animals and it is not an ordinary mammal: together with the echidna and the platypus, these are the only mammals that lay eggs. “The reason this animal looks so different is because that group of animals split from other mammals about 200 million years ago,” Kempton explains. Other, less rare species of furred urchins still occur in Australia and the lowlands of New Guinea.
To brave the remote area, the team received help last summer from the Indonesian conservation group Yappenda and residents of the village of Yongsu Sapari. In their culture, the fur hedgehog has a symbolic meaning. In case of serious disagreements, they send one party into the forest to look for the fur hedgehog, while the other party has to find a marlin in the ocean. Since both species are equally difficult to find, an eventual find would symbolize the end of their conflict.