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Laura Klappenbach

Renewed Hope for Australian Echidnas

By January 13, 2013

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The western long-beaked echidna is a critically endangered egg-laying mammal (also known as a monotreme) that inhabits the westernmost tip of New Guinea. Although the western long-beaked echidna's historic range once included parts of Australia, scientists thought the species disappeared from Australia thousands of years ago.

Scientists know the western long-beaked echidna once inhabited Australia from fossil remains that date to the Pleistocene and from aboriginal rock paintings that depict the species. But there have been no sightings of the species in Australia in modern history. Or so they thought.

Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution recently re-examined a specimen of an echidna stored at the Natural History Museum in London. The previously overlooked specimen, as it turns out, was collected from northwestern Australia in 1901. That means the species was alive and well in the wilds of Australia just over a century ago. It also means scientists will likely be planning an expedition to Australia in search of western long-beaked echidnas still living there today.

Western long-beaked echidnas belong to a unique group of mammals called the monotremes. These primitive mammals differ from their cousins the placental mammals in that they lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young.

Comments

January 18, 2013 at 12:30 am
(1) Tim Upham says:

For a long time it was believed when the tectonic plates moved Australia northwards, that the continent dried out. So the long-beaked echidna fled to the moist tropical forests of New Guinea, where they could drive their beaks deep into the moist soil to find their prey. But apparently, Australia did not dry out completely, for the long-beaked echidna was just recently discovered in the Kimberly Mountains. Also, tropical forests are still found in Queensland. Not an extension of the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, but forests unique to Australia. Parrots are found in Australia, where they adapted to living in arid conditions.

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