Rare 'living fossil' spotted after decades of presumed extinction

The rare egg-laying mammal has the ‘spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater and the feet of a mole’

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An expedition in the Cyclops Mountains of Indonesia has led to the first-ever photographic evidence of a mammal named after Sir David Attenborough, and long believed to be extinct.

Dubbed Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, the rare egg-laying mammal has the “spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater and the feet of a mole,” according to Oxford biologist James Kempton, who led the four-week expedition.

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Sharing a name with a mythological Greek figure that’s part human and part serpent, the mammal belongs to the monotremes, a unique egg-laying branch that diverged from other mammals around 200 million years ago.

The video footage, recorded with trail cameras, is the first evidence of the mammal in 62 years.

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The Cyclops Mountains, located in the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea, are the only place the creature has ever been seen.

The echidna is not the only discovery researchers made on the expedition, which took place in June and July. They collected thousands of invertebrate specimens in addition to nearly a hundred frogs and reptiles, and have identified two previously unknown frog species and numerous new insect species.

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Researchers also discovered a new genus of terrestrial shrimp. Spotted in trees and on the forest floor, the shrimp, which is slightly larger than a grain of rice, has the ability to leap several feet in the air.

“It’s a very weird creature,” Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou, the expedition’s lead entomologist, told the New York Times.

Kempton says he is working to understand how the area was formed and how it has influenced its modern-day biodiversity.

The team gathered over 75 kilograms of rock samples to aid in the paleogeological mapping of the mountain’s history and is working alongside Papuan universities and the Indonesian government to make the case for increased protection of the Cyclops Mountains.

“With 83 per cent of Indonesian New Guinea’s old-growth forest still intact, we are at a critical moment to ensure the preservation of the world’s most biodiverse island,” Kempton says, adding that he plans to conduct future research across all of Indonesian New Guinea.

Exploration of the Cyclops Mountains is challenging due to almost continuous rainfall, a rugged, sloped landscape, and the presence of venomous snakes as well as leeches inhabiting the trees. Davranoglou told the Times he fractured his hand descending a mountain, while another researcher fell into a moss-covered hole that uncovered a previously unknown cave system.

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In the cave, scientists discovered more previously unknown species, including blind spiders, crickets and a sizeable whip scorpion. They also spotted Mayr’s honeyeater on the expedition, a bird not seen since 2008.

The team worked alongside local residents, guides and students, who helped the scientists navigate the area and find the best locations to place more than 80 camera traps. The team intends to name the new species for the local students and collaborators.

Footage of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna was discovered on the last memory card that the researchers reviewed.

“There was a great sense of euphoria, and also relief having spent so long in the field with no reward until the very final day,” Kempton told Reuters. “I shouted out to my colleagues that were still remaining… and said ‘we found it, we found it.’”

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