INDONESIA: In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers on the Cycloop Expedition in the Cycloop Mountains of Papua have found the Zaglossus attenboroughi, or long-beaked echidna, previously believed to have been extinct for 62 years.
This remarkable find marks the first time that the Zaglossus attenboroughi, named after renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, has been photographed in its natural habitat.
The last known sighting of the Zaglossus attenboroughi occurred in 1961 when Dutch botanist Pieter van Royen discovered a preserved specimen near the summit of Mount Rara in the Cycloop Mountains. This extraordinary rediscovery has sparked excitement among the scientific community and conservationists worldwide.
Dr James Kempton, the lead scientist from the University of Oxford who spearheaded the expedition in June-July 2023, described the discovery as “like finding a branch of the tree of life with a very long evolutionary history.” He emphasized the significance of confirming the species’ continued existence.
The Zaglossus attenboroughi, a unique egg-laying mammal known as a monotreme, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. It is one of only five egg-laying mammal species in the world. The species is characterized by its long beak, spiky body similar to a hedgehog, and habitat in the remote forests of the Cycloop Mountains.
Local villagers in Yongsu Spari, at the base of the mountains, refer to this creature as “payangko.” Alongside this rediscovery, the Cycloop Expedition unveiled hundreds of potential new species, further highlighting the ecological significance of this pristine region.
The Cycloop Mountains, located west of Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura, stretch from west to east, forming a boundary between Lake Sentani and the Pacific Ocean.
The local community expressed their gratitude for the conservation of their unique habitat, with one resident, Zacharias Sorondanya, stating, “I had no idea there were so many rare species in these forests, and I feel blessed to know that the forest is still intact.”
The researchers utilized 80 cameras placed throughout the Cycloop Mountains, with one capturing video and images of the Zaglossus attenboroughi on July 22, 2023, at 20:08 local time. The exact location of the discovery is being kept confidential to protect the species.
James Kempton stated, “This is the first scientific evidence that Zaglossus attenboroughi is still alive, and the first-ever photographs of this creature.” While relatively little is known about the species due to a lack of prior live observations, this discovery aligns with the preserved specimen’s descriptions.
The Zaglossus attenboroughi is the smallest of the echidna species, with individuals estimated to measure around 70-80 cm in length. “This discovery suggests that the population of this species has been maintained since its last sighting in 1961, which is great news. I suspect there are more of them, although not in large numbers, as they only inhabit these mountains,” explained Kempton.
Previous attempts to locate this creature, including an expedition in 2007, proved unsuccessful. This time, the researchers explored the most remote areas of the forest, an environment rarely disturbed by human activity.
Part of the studied region included the customary forests of local tribes residing at the mountain’s base. Certain areas were considered sacred and off-limits to outsiders. Dr Leonidas Romanos-Davranoglou, an entomologist from the University of Oxford who participated in the research, emphasized the importance of collaborating with local communities and respecting their knowledge and customs.
The research team spent approximately 17 days camping in the forest while exploring and studying the fauna in the Cycloop Mountains. They also received valuable assistance from students at Cenderawasih University and local guides who shared their deep knowledge of the region.
James explained that the next step is to conduct further research on the species, including its distribution within the mountains, preferred altitudes, population size, breeding habits, and conservation status. One potential threat to this species is poaching, making public awareness crucial to its protection.
The research was conducted in collaboration with the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) of Papua, Cenderawasih University, and the Papua Nenda Service Foundation (YAPPENDA).
It also aimed to provide training on biodiversity and conservation for Papua’s students, enabling them to contribute to the preservation of the region’s unique wildlife.
Dr James Kempton expressed his hope that the younger generation would learn essential techniques and conduct their own research to ensure the future conservation of Papua’s remarkable biodiversity. He stressed the importance of protecting such pristine environments for the well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.