Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Back from the dead?

An animal specimen discovered in the basement of the Natural History Museum in London has raised hopes that a species long thought to have been extinct in Australia may still be living in the remote outback.

An echidna in the wild in New Guinea (Tim Laman)

The long-beaked echidna looks like a cross between a platypus and a porcupine, but with the elongated snout of an anteater. It is one of just five mammal species on Earth that lays eggs.

It was thought that the last few animals were living in the rainforests of New Guinea where hunting has driven them to the brink of extinction.

But a surprise discovery in the museum's huge collection of preserved animals has raised the tantalising possibility that they have been living in Australia's remote North-West all along.

Tunney's label is dated 1901 (Natural History Museum)
Based on Aboriginal rock art and fossil records, researchers believed the long-beaked echidna had last lived in Australia some 11,000 years ago.

So when an expert at the museum noticed a hand-written label tied to the foot of an echidna specimen saying it had been found in Australia in 1901, he was perplexed.

"Our first thought was that something was wrong with the labels, [that] maybe they got misplaced from another specimen," curator Roberto Portela Miguez told ITV News.

But researchers soon recognised the writing as that of the Australian naturalist John Tunney - a man known for his fastidious record-keeping.

Tunney collected animal specimens across north-west Australia for the private museum of Lord Walter Rothschild, who was fond of echidnas and kept a more common variety of them as pets.

If his label is to be believed, echidnas had been living in western Australia at the start of the twentieth century, meaning they could still be living there today.

"That would be the cherry on the cake," Portela Miguez says. "Finding a species that we … [thought] was extinct for thousands of years and still alive, that would be the best news ever."

Kristofer Helgen with an echidna in New Guinea (Tim Laman)
The Kimberley region of Australia, where the specimen was found, can only accessed by 4x4 and parts of it require a helicopter ride.

But the fact that it is so inaccessible and sparsely populated gives weight to the idea that echidnas may have survived there unnoticed.

A recent survey by Australian conservationists showed there were still some pockets of rainforest that would make suitable habitats and which have not yet been explored.

"The next step will be an expedition to search for this animal," the lead researcher Kristofer Helgen says. 

"We’ll need to look carefully in the right habitats to determine where it held on, and for how long, and if any are still out there. 

"We believe there may be memories of this animal among Aboriginal communities, and we’d like to learn as much about that as we can."
One of 28 million specimens at the museum (Natural History Museum)
It would not be the first time a species thought to be extinct has been rediscovered in this remote corner of Australia. In the 1950s, explorers found some scaly-tailed possums which had not been seen since 1917. 

But even if the Australian long-beaked echidna is not rediscovered, Portela Miguez says there could be some good news for its New Guinean cousin. 

"If we survey that area and we identify habitats where it might have survived until the late twentieth century, then maybe we can relocate some specimens from New Guinea to protect them in those areas."

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