How animal poop could be key in solving echidna mystery

skeleton of a long-beaked echidna

Long-beaked echidnas are rare today, found only in Papua New Guinea and on a few Indonesian islands. The species may still be lurking in Australia, but no one is sure.

Gunnar Creutz/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Echidnas are some of the oddest animals you’ll ever see, more closely related to a platypus than anything else, as the only other mammals that lay eggs. There are four living species: Short-beaked echidnas — about the size of a house cat and covered in spikes — are common throughout Australia and in Papua New Guinea, where three long-beaked species live.

One of those species, the western long-beaked echidna, which is larger and has fewer spines than the short-beaked variety, used to live in Australia. Scientists have found fossils of the species, and aboriginal people who lived near Darwin in north central Australia painted the echidnas on rocks more than 10,000 years ago. The long-beaked echidnas then disappeared sometime after that, scientists have thought.

There are hints, though, that the species still exists in Australia. In 2012, Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and colleagues reported in Zookeys that an echidna skull and skin housed in the National History Museum in London belonged to a western long-beaked echidna collected by John Thomas Tunney, who gathered specimens for the Western Australian Museum in Perth at the turn of the last century.

echidna specimen collected in 1901
The skin of the echidna John Thomas Tunney collected in 1901 now sits in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. K.M. Helgen et al/Zookeys 2012, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
According to the specimen’s tags, Tunney had collected the animal on November 20, 1901, at Mount Anderson in the Western Kimberley region of Australia. Originally identified as a short-beaked echidna, museum scientists decided it was a Zaglossus bruijnii , a western long-beaked echidna, after removing and examining the animal’s skull. They then put the skull and skin away in a drawer; the animal was forgotten for decades until Helgen happened upon it. He and his team then examined specimen and decided that, yes, it was indeed a western long-beaked echidna. And, after examining the documentation attached to the animal’s remains, they determined that the echidna wasn’t mislabeled; it had most likely had been collected by Tunney in Australia. Perhaps the species was still living on the continent, they posited.

That wasn’t their only evidence. The researchers also recounted the tale of an encounter that one member of the team, James Kohen of Macquarie University in Australia, had with an aboriginal woman in the Kimberley region in 2001: While walking together, they noticed some poop, which the woman correctly identified as belonging to an echidna. She then told the scientist that her grandmothers “used to hunt the other one,” a much larger echidna that had not been seen for ages. Perhaps that meant that the woman’s actual grandmothers had hunted long-beaked echidnas — or maybe it was a tale told over many generations, and it was long-ago ancestors. Or maybe no one hunted long-beaked echidnas at all.

“We realize that, despite our conclusions,” the team writes, “others may remain skeptical of this Zaglossus specimen’s association with Tunney’s tags. Additional studies of this remarkable specimen might include analyses of ancient DNA, stable isotopes, and trace elements to test its origins and the context of its collection.”

To truly confirm that the long-beaked echidna is roaming modern-day Australia, scientists would have to find the animals in Australia. Though maybe not, biologist Adrian Burton notes in the April Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Tunney never found a second echidna specimen; if he had, it would have been in the museum because he was contracted to supply them with one. But finding it would have been a huge undertaking, Burton writes. “To acquire a second specimen, Tunney would have been doomed to work for hours on end, laying traps and seeking out the shuffling creature among the rocky gullies and evergreen rainforest patches around [Mount] Anderson. And he may never have come any closer than stumbling upon a few scats.”

Today, though, those scats would be all researchers would need, Burton suggests. They could compare the DNA in the echidna poop to the DNA of animals living in New Guinea and genetic material gathered from the specimen in the London museum. If they all matched, then that would be proof that the species still lives in Australia.

No scientists have managed to get funding, however, for an expedition to the region where Tunney collected his echidna, Burton notes. That probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. The evidence that the long-beaked echidna lives in Australia today is pretty iffy, and the country has experienced severe cuts in funding for science in recent years. Echidna enigmas aren’t a priority.

But perhaps, just perhaps, these spiky, worm-eating creatures are still hiding out in some forest, waiting for someone to find them — or at least their poop.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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