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Search for Attenborough’s echidna (Part 1)

By on June 25, 2007 in Attenborough's echidna, EDGE Updates, Focal species, Uncategorized

In May of 2007 the EDGE team sent out a preliminary research expedition to search for Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (a remarkable small spiny egg-laying mammal with an enormous snout) in Papua. Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna was discovered by a Dutch botanist in 1961 at 1,600 m in the cloud forest of the Cyclops Mountains. It has not been recorded since and many scientists have suggested it may now be extinct.

Zaglossus attenboroughi specimen from Leiden Museum collected by van Royen in 1961

My name is Jonathan Baillie and I have just retuned from the Cyclops Mountains and will be posting a series of updates from this research expedition.

Jonathan Baillie climbing the Cyclops Mountains

Attenborough’s echidna is one of five monotremes (egg-laying mammals) that first inhabited the earth around the time of the dinosaurs. This group includes the duck-billed platypus which helps demonstrate how different these species are from all other mammals. When the platypus was first discovered by western scientists it was thought to be an elaborate hoax comprising parts of different animals skilfully stitched together.

Duck-billed platypus

Despite the fact that Attenborough’s echidna is one of the most evolutionarily distinct mammals on the planet and is possibly extinct, no research or species specific conservation has ever been undertaken.

The EDGE team aims to make sure that remarkable species such as this do not fall through the conservation net and slide to extinction unnoticed. We want to collect the baseline information on species’ status, distribution, ecology, and threat processes so that effective conservation planning can take place. Essentially, we want to put these neglected species on the map and initiate the implementation of appropriate conservation actions.

The main objectives of the expedition were to:

1. Develop local partnerships.
2. Assess whether Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna still exists.
3. Assess whether it is truly a distinct species.
4. Assess threat processes to Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna and other wildlife in the Cyclops Mountains.
5. Identify future potential research sites.
6. Identify EDGE Fellows (local young scientists) to conduct further studies.

From London I flew to Jakarta and then on to Jayapura, Papua (formerly Irian Jaya).

Map of Papua.  Jayapura and the Cyclops Mountains are under the red dot.

As we were landing in Jayapura I could see the Cyclops mountain range dramatically rising from the sea. Dense tropical forest covered a series of steep, almost vertical ridges. I wanted to assess how difficult the peaks looked to climb, but they were constantly covered in cloud.

To be continued…