With spines like a hedgehog, feet like a mole and snout like an anteater, this bizarre-looking animal is hard to miss. But that’s exactly what it has been excelling at for more than half a century, eluding scientists to the point that this weird hybrid-looking species had been presumed extinct.
Now, remarkably, the animal has been spotted casually strolling past the field of view of a movement-triggered camera trap, one of 80 such devices deployed during research project Expedition Cyclops, in the remote and inhospitable Cyclops Mountains in Indonesia’s Papua province.
The animal in question is actually the Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi), which has, of course, been named after the beloved British presenter Sir David Attenborough. It’s only been scientifically recorded once before, in 1961, by Dutch botanist Pieter van Royen.
“Because of its hybrid appearance, it shares its name with a creature of Greek mythology that is half human, half serpent,” said James Kempton, a biologist from the University of Oxford who led the expedition. “The reason it appears so unlike other mammals is because it is a member of the monotremes – an egg-laying group that separated from the rest of the mammal tree-of-life about 200 million years ago.”
Much like its Australian echidna cousins, this species is notoriously people-shy and does most of its wandering in the dark, usually well hidden in ground cover.
Along with three other echidna species and the platypus, it’s one of only five remaining monotremes on the planet. It’s also listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and has never been recorded outside of the Cyclops Mountains.
Previous expeditions in 2022 had given scientists hope, after discovering distinctive ‘nose pokes’ in soil, a tell-tale sign of the long-beaked animal foraging for ground insects. However, the Expedition Cyclops team had almost given up after four weeks of no sightings despite deploying the 80 cameras across an expanse that, over multiple ascents, saw them scale over 11,000 meters (36,089 feet), a height greater than Mount Everest.
Finally, though, they got lucky: On the last day, on the last memory card retrieved, they had not just images but video of the lumbering, spiky echidna. While hard to mistake, researchers made sure and had its identity confirmed by Professor Kristofer Helgen from the Australian Museum Research Institute.
The team worked closely with the local communities. The echidna holds cultural significance for one such community, the people of Yongsu Sapari, who have inhabited the northern slopes of the mountains for 18 generations. It’s said that when there is conflict, one side is sent up into the ranges to search for an echidna, while the other side heads to the ocean to find a marlin. Because they were both so hard to find, it would often take decades to do so. However, once found, the animals symbolized the end of the fight.
“The discovery is the result of a lot of hard work and over three and a half years of planning,” Kempton said. “A key reason why we succeeded is because, with the help of [Indonesian NGO] YAPPENDA, we have spent years building a relationship with the community of Yongsu Sapari, a village on the north coast of the Cyclops Mountains. The trust between us was the bedrock of our success because they shared with us the knowledge to navigate these treacherous mountains, and even allowed us to research on lands that have never before felt the tread of human feet.”
The echidna is also an EDGE species, which are considered ‘one of a kind’ and close to extinction. This night wanderer has also evolved independently of other mammals for around 200 million years.
The team made many other discoveries on the challenging trip: several dozen new insect species, the rediscovery of Mayr’s honeyeater (Ptiloprora mayri) for the first time since 2008, and a new genus of ground- and tree-dwelling shrimp.
“We were quite shocked to discover this shrimp in the heart of the forest, because it is a remarkable departure from the typical seaside habitat for these animals,” said Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and lead entomologist on the expedition. “We believe that the high level of rainfall in the Cyclops Mountains means the humidity is great enough for these creatures to live entirely on land.”
It was anything but a walk in the park, however. The region is known for being extremely challenging on foot – the researchers found themselves cutting new paths through the dense jungle, where no humans have ever stepped foot before. This is one reason why the Cyclops Mountains is a treasure trove of new species, compared to life beyond the region where human disturbance has been so devastating for the natural world.
Over the course of the fieldwork, Davranoglou broke his arm in two places, someone contracted malaria, and another team member had even worse luck, with a leech attached to his eye for nearly two days before it could be removed in hospital.
“Though some might describe the Cyclops as a ‘Green Hell,’ I think the landscape is magical, at once enchanting and dangerous, like something out of a Tolkien book,” said Kempton. “In this environment, the camaraderie between the expedition members was fantastic, with everyone helping to keep up morale. In the evening, we exchanged stories around the fire, all the while surrounded by the hoots and peeps of frogs.”
The team also collected 75 kg (165 lb) of rock samples and expect many more new animal species to be discovered in future research. The scientists hope to name their future discoveries after members of the local community.
“Tropical rainforests are among the most important and most threatened terrestrial ecosystems, said Davranoglou. “It is our duty to support our colleagues on the frontline through exchanging knowledge, skills, and equipment.”
Check out the video below to see the precious footage that has put this echidna back on the the world map.
Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna caught on camera trap