An expedition team exploring the Cyclops Mountains in Indonesia has captured the first-ever photographic evidence of an elusive species of echidna in the wild. The last official sighting of the species was more than 60 years ago, leading some researchers to fear it may have gone extinct.
But, bolstered by local reports that the species may still exist, the team held out hope during their four-week expedition. On their last day, they captured the animal—named Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna after famed broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough—on video.
“The first feeling was one of great relief, because we had tried so hard and thought they were there, but we needed concrete evidence for the scientific proof,” James Kempton, a biologist at the University of Oxford who led the expedition, tells NBC News’ Natalie Kainz. “That was followed by extreme euphoria.”
Echidnas are unique, quilled creatures with small eyes and a long nose. They belong to a rare group of egg-laying mammals known as monotremes. Only five living monotremes exist: four echidna species and the platypus.
“These five species are the sole guardians of 200 million years of evolutionary history,” Kempton tells the New York Times’ Douglas Main. “To protect that unique and fragile evolutionary history is extremely important.”
The first and only specimen of the Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi) was collected by a Dutch botanist in 1961 and is now kept in a museum in the Netherlands. Much about this critically endangered animal remains unknown because sightings are so rare, though it is the smallest of the long-beaked echidnas. Hunting and habitat loss are its main threats.
Because in this room is the preserved skin of David Attenborough's long-beaked echidna. No other museum or scientific collection has one. Until this Sunday, we knew it as the only evidence that this species ever existed. pic.twitter.com/QAfFPuN41Y— Naturalis Biodiversity Center (@Naturalis_Sci) November 10, 2023
Z. attenboroughi has been “lost” from the scientific record since its initial collection, though members of the Yongsu Sapari community in Indonesia have reported much more recent sightings, per a statement from Re:wild. One of the expedition team members, Gison Morib, even found signs of the animals as recently as 2022, including their burrows and holes in the ground left by their long snouts when rooting for worms.
In the local Tepera language, the echidna is called “payangko.” Traditionally, the animals were used to resolve conflicts within the community rather than fighting, per the statement. One side would go up into the Cyclops Mountains to search for an echidna while the other party would go to the ocean to find a marlin. Both animals are extremely rare and would often take decades to find, but once located, they would symbolize the return of harmonious relationships in the village.
To gather photographic evidence of the animals, the Expedition Cyclops team—made up of an Indonesian NGO, international researchers, students from a local university and members of the community of Yongsu Sapari—collaborated on a challenging expedition.
Team members placed 80 trail cameras in the tropical rainforests of the Indonesian province of Papua. For one month, they battled insects, venomous animals, inhospitable terrain, leeches, malaria, earthquakes and exhausting heat without capturing a single photograph of the echidnas. Finally—at the very end and with their final SD card—the researchers obtained the photos and videos that showed the elusive animals were still living on the mountain.
“It is really valuable to understand that it still occurs in the Cyclops Mountains,” Kristofer Helgen, a mammalogist and director of the Australian Museum Research Institute who wasn’t involved in the expedition, tells the Times. “To me, these are some of the most special animals on Earth.”
In addition to the echidnas, the expedition team made other groundbreaking finds. They rediscovered the Mayr’s honeyeater, a bird not recorded since 2008; uncovered a new genus of tree-dwelling shrimp; and revealed new species of blind spiders, a whip scorpion and a blind harvestman (also called daddy longlegs) in an underground cave system, per a statement from the University of Oxford.
The researchers say they hope these discoveries will help bolster conservation in the Cyclops Mountains.
“We were so excited, because we were always saying, ‘This is new, nobody has seen this’ or ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that I’m seeing this,’” Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou, a Greek insect specialist at the University of Oxford who took part in the research, tells BBC News’ Jonah Fisher and Charlie Northcott. “It was a truly monumental expedition.”