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Echidna, Feared Extinct, Is Alive and "Tasty," Hunters Tell Scientists

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2007
 
One of the world's rarest creatures, Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, appears to be alive and well, conservationists say. It is also reportedly quite delicious.

The animal, native to the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, was feared to be extinct (see a map of Papua New Guinea).

But scientists' concerns were allayed—somewhat—when hunters on the island reported that they had seen the echidna and "the meat was very greasy and extremely tasty."

"It sounded like they hadn't eaten too many, and it was just wonderful news to hear they were still alive," said Jonathan Baillie, a conservationist with the Zoological Society of London, who led the expedition to find the animal.

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, a primitive, egg-laying, spiny mammal related to the platypus, is so rare that no scientist has ever seen one alive.

Named in honour of the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, the echidna is thought to live on only one mountain peak in New Guinea's Cyclops Mountains.

Just one specimen exists, which was found in 1961 and is now kept in a museum in the Netherlands.

Baillie said his expectations of finding the animal were fairly low.

"We were nervous that it would have disappeared," he said.

Nose Pokes

In addition to collecting reports of sightings from seven villagers in the area—the most recent in 2005—Baillie and his colleagues came across fresh feeding holes created by the echidna.

"We saw a number of echidna feeding holes, or 'nose pokes,'" Baillie said.

Echidnas create the round holes when they hunt for worms, he explained.

"Some of the holes had an imprint of their head left in the mud. This left us in no doubt that they were created by the Attenborough's long-beaked echidna," Baillie said.

Given that the only previous specimen was found at an elevation of 5,250 feet (1,600 meters), the scientists were surprised to find nose-pokes at altitudes of only 985 feet (300 meters) and within 6 miles (10 kilometers) of the nearest village.

"It gives us hope that many more echidnas live higher up the mountain," Baillie said.

Next year the scientists hope to catch their first glimpse of the creature alive, when they return to set up camera traps near the feeding holes.

Echidna-Eating Custom

To help protect the remaining echidnas and ensure their long-term survival, an educational campaign is being set up in local communities.

The campaign may involve encouraging villagers to drop one of their cultural traditions, which requires catching an echidna and sharing its meat with a rival in order to restore peace.

"A lot of local people were unaware that this echidna was only found in these mountains. They are now keen to help conserve it," Baillie said.

To Baillie and his colleagues the echidna is of great significance in the animal kingdom.

"It is one of the world's most evolutionarily distinct species, with very few close relatives," Baillie said.

"It represents millions of years of independent evolutionary history, and in terms of importance it is comparable to historical relics like Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China. We really don't want to lose it."

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