Sir David Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, Cyclops Mountains, Papua, Indonesia

Species Named for Sir David Attenborough Confirmed Alive in the Forest of ‘Our Mother’

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s real: an egg-laying, long-nosed, spiny mammal has been confirmed alive in the tropical Cyclops Mountains. The echidna species is among the world’s oldest living mammals, diverging from the ancestors of other mammals over 200 million years ago.

Recently, an expedition into the Cyclops Mountains led to the discovery of several dozen new species as well, including tree-dwelling shrimp.

In 1998, the odd mammal species was named in honor of Sir David Attenborough, called Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi). Stranger still, the word echidna is shared with hybrid monsters of Greek mythology, half person and half serpent, and a child of Gaia.

Amazingly, they may be the only land animal that searches for food by detecting the electromagnetic signals emitted by all living things with their snout (see video below). And aside from the platypus, they are the only mammals to lay eggs.

Echidna via Nat Geo Wild:

How would you describe such a creature? Well, the echidna has a snout like an anteater, feet like a mole, and spines like a hedgehog. Below, the trail cam video shows the animal moving along the forest at night. The researchers spotted it on the last day of their expedition. And, they saw it on the last remaining bit of camera footage.

“This species is one of five living monotremes, a strange group of primitive mammals that includes the platypus and three other echidna species. Monotremes diverged from the common ancestors of other mammals around 200 million years ago. The five species lay eggs and nurse their young with milk through pores in their skin, as they lack nipples and possess snouts that sense movements and electrical currents in prey,” reported the New York Times.

Possibly Attenborough's long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi) long-beakeed Echidna. Image via Facebook/Bush Heritage Australia, Flannery & Groves, 1998
Image via Facebook/Bush Heritage Australia, Flannery & Groves, 1998

The Echidna Species is Known from One (Flat) Museum Specimen

In 1961, a Dutch botanist in the colonial era collected the one known specimen. Ever since then, it has been safe in the Natural History Museum in the Netherlands. But it wasn’t until the 90s that an X-ray confirmed it was a unique species.

Image of Zaglossus attenboroughi specimen in the Netherlands via Wikipedia, Echidna, long-beaker echidna,
Image of Zaglossus attenboroughi via Wikipedia

Sir David’s Echidna Is a Symbol of Peace

Ironically, the species’ scarcity made it part of a peace-keeping tradition by indigenous peoples. If there was an unresolved dispute in the community, one person was given the challenge to find an echidna. The other party had to catch a marlin fish. Since finding these animals could take years, it tended to resolve the conflict and symbolized peace, according to expedition member Madeleine Foote from Oxford University.

Unfortunately, the three species of Long-beaked Echidna have been a traditional food source. Thus, growing pressures from hunting put all on the Critically Endangered list. They have little ability to defend themselves aside from their spines.

Researcher Muse Opiang holding an echidna that has been tagged with a radio transmitter around its left rear ankle. The animal’s neck simply merges into the head, so a collar just slips off. The skin is quite loose around the body, so they can wiggle right out of a harness like Houdini. The only way Opiang could attach a transmitter was on the ankle. Photo by David Gillison via Mongabay
Researcher Muse Opiang holding an echidna that has been tagged with a radio transmitter around its left rear ankle. The animal’s neck simply merges into the head, so a collar just slips off. The skin is quite loose around the body, so they can wiggle right out of a harness like Houdini. The only way Opiang could attach a transmitter was on the ankle. Photo by David Gillison via Mongabay

As you can imagine, the Oxford University researchers were delighted to spot the echidna in the video footage. They say that Sir David Attenborough was similarly thrilled when they told him the news.

Video by The Telegraph showing Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna caught on camera:

Other Species New to Science

As well as finding evidence that the echidna is still surviving in the remote mountains, the team described seeing many entirely new species. Plus, another included a bird that hadn’t been documented in 15 years, the Mayr’s honeyeater.

As an example of a new species, they found numerous tree-dwelling shrimp about the size of a grain of rice. The high-jumping shrimp evolved to live on land in the high humidity. Others included a blind cave spider, frogs, and many insects. Soon, the researchers plan to name the new species after local students and residents who helped with their expedition.

Notably, the area is also home to tree kangaroos and many species of exotic Birds of Paradise.

Cyclops Mountains, terrestrial shrimp that lives in trees
Image of the terrestrial shrimp by Expedition Cyclops

Video showing the Cyclops Mountain from an unrelated 2017 biodiversity survey:

Sacred Cyclops Mountains

The mountains received the name “the Cyclops Mountains” from the French military navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. He named them when he saw two mountain peaks along the coast of Papua, Indonesia, from his ship.

However, local people know the mountains as “Robhong Holo,” named for a couple lost in the forest, which, as the legend goes, turned into the two mountain peaks.

Echidna Greek mythological sculpture in Italy
Echidna sculpture in Italy via Wikimedia Commons

Protecting The Forests of ‘Our Mother’

The Cyclops Mountains are sacred to the indigenous peoples.

“The mountains are referred to as the landlady,” Madeleine Foote told the BBC. “And you do not want to upset the landlady by not taking good care of her property,”

According to the Papuan clan leader, Amos Ondikeleuw, the mountains are viewed as “Our Mother.”

“For the indigenous groups, the Cyclops Mountains are like our mother. She deserves respect,” said Papuan clan leader Amos Ondikeleuw, who worked for 23 years for state conservation agencies until his retirement in 2005.

Cyclops Mountains and inset of Indonesia via Wikipedia
Cyclops Mountains, Fadil Hanif, Wikipedia

Indigenous Peoples Protecting the Forests

The Cyclops Mountains are protected in a nature preserve, but indigenous Papuans have been fighting to save ancestral forests for decades. In 2022, the Indonesian government relinquished seven areas of state forests to the custody of Indigenous communities, a first in history. 

“Studies have shown that Indigenous peoples are the best custodians of forests,” reported Mongabay.

Wonderfully, the government entrusted Indigenous Papuans to preserve areas in the Cyclops Reserve as well, which had been deteriorating rapidly in recent years.

Afterward, environmentalists welcomed the move since it would help protect the forests from ever-present logging, plantations such as palm oil operations, and mining. Nevertheless, the vast majority of forested areas remain unprotected.

Today, the discovery regarding Sir David’s long-beaked echidna should help prioritize protecting these incredible wild areas. But it needs to happen everywhere, not just in this fascinating part of the world.

“I have gotten the chance to enjoy the reserve’s beauty,” said Ondikeleuw. “But, I’m worried that the next generation will only be able to see forest, birds, and other wildlife in pictures. For that, they will blame us for being irresponsible.”

Papuan Clan leader Amos Ondikeleuw. Photo by Christopel Paino/Mongabay, Cyclops Mountains
Amos Ondikeleuw. Photo by Christopel Paino/Mongabay.

Featured image via screenshot/YouTube