Just before landing, one of the passengers, named Mr Paulus Ormuseray told me that he had seen an echidna at about 200m elevation in the hills behind little Yongsu village in 1980. When I showed him the picture of a different species of long-beaked echidna from the western highlands he said the animal that he saw was similar, but was smaller, about a foot long, and had a shorter straighter beak.
This was extremely exciting news, as echidnas are not usually found at such low elevation, and everything that Mr Paulus Ormuseray said was consistent with Flannery and Groves’ (1998) description of the only existing museum specimen of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi). See here for more information.
Flannery and Groves (1998) identified the main characteristics differentiating Attenborough’s echidna from all other long-beaked echidnas as:
(1) An overall smaller size;
(2) Shorter, finer, dense fur;
(3) A brown colour (close to raw umber); and,
(4) A shorter, straighter beak.
However, the single specimen of Attenborough’s echidna, currently residing at the Leiden National Museum of Natural History, is in poor condition – as can be seen from the below X-ray of the broken break – so it is difficult to be certain that it is truly a distinct species.
It was therefore very encouraging that Mr Paulus Ormuseray’s description supported the fact that the species found in the Cyclops Mountains is truly different from all others. The only thing he said that was not consistent with the description of the museum specimen was that the species was a black colour, not brown.
Another point that supports that theory that Attenborough’s echidna is a distinct species is that it is isolated to a mountain range far away from all other long-beaked echidnas. The closest population of Long-beaked echidna (Z. b. diamondi) is found roughly 200km to the south, and is the largest of all the echidnas.
In the late afternoon we reached our destination – a small village house in Little Yongsu. Our gracious host was a man who referred to himself as Bapa – the Indonesian word for father.
Immediately large quantities of betel nut (Areca catechu) appeared – a bitter tasting mildly intoxicating small palm nut. Bapa popped four or five in his mouth and began his enlightening, but lengthy monolog. I was very impressed with our interpreter for deciphering the betel nut induced baritone grumble.
Bapa was roughly 70 and had never seen an echidna in or around Little Yongsu, but he knew the local word ‘Payangko’ and was aware of a number of men who had caught or seen this rare species over the years. Young children were then sent to all corners of the village to summon the hunters who knew something about this curious species. One by one the hunters arrived and recounted detailed stories of when they first saw an echidna.
In total, four men had seen an echidna near Little Yongsu. The most recent sighting was by Ben who snared and ate an Attenborough’s echidna in 2005. He said the meat was very greasy and extremely tasty which, unfortunately for the echidna, is meant to be true.
Strangely, all the sightings were below 300 meters in elevation, which is uncharacteristic of the other species of long-beaked echidna; though common for the short-beaked echidna. All the stories supported Flannery and Groves’ (1998) assertion that Attenborough’s echidnas are much smaller then their relatives (they indicated that they were roughly the size of a shoe box). However, all of them described the species as being black and said that the beak was visibly curved.
I asked them a number of questions about the echidna that would be difficult to answer it they had not held or eaten one. For example, I asked how sharp the teeth were and all of them correctly responded that they do not have teeth. Convinced that the reports were genuine I asked them to take me to the sites where the echidnas were last seen. I also asked them to go with me to the top of the Cyclops Mountains so that we could search the site where Pieter van Royen (a Dutch botanist) collected the only known specimen on July 4th, 1961.
They were more then happy to take me to the sites of the most recent sightings, but were less forthcoming about the top of the Cyclops Mountains. At first they said the echidna did not live at the top of the mountains. Then they said that we would have to climb up and down four heavily forested, almost vertical mountains to get there. They also said it was too cold, wet, and contained not one but four types of leaches, and then, that no-one knew how to get there. When I still expressed an interest they finally said that the land surrounding the higher parts of the Cyclops Mountains, on the north side, was owned by another tribe that could be quite aggressive and that they could not give us permission to go there. It was agreed that over the next few days we would search the sites where echidnas had been reported near Little Yongsu and at the same time one of the villagers would go to Ormu, the next village over and one with better access to the Cyclops Mountains, and ask them permission for us to visit and climb the mountains.
The next day we followed a river to the foothills of the Cyclops Mountains, where we began an intensive search for any signs of this elusive creature. We were south of the village at just below 300m elevation in the late afternoon when one of the villagers told me he had found a number of classic echidna feeding holes or ‘nose pokes’.
To be continued…