Earlier this summer, the Journal of Mammalogy published findings from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) study of long-beaked echidnas in Papua New Guinea. WCS trained an intern, Muse Opiang, to track, tag, and study the elusive monotremes. Opiang has since formed his own non-profit organization, the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research.
Although the other two members of the order Monotremata, the duck-billed platypus and short-beaked echidna, are fairly well-known to people, the long-beaked echidna has never been studied and is critically endangered. Opiang spent 500 hours in the field before he found a single one. After 6,000 hour of field work, he managed to capture 22 echidnas, tagging 12 of these with radio transmitters. Their larger size makes them a popular bushmeat target of hunters.
Monotremes are egg-laying mammals, an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles, and placental mammals. They nurse young via lactation patches in their skin. A single opening, or cloaca, serves both reproductive and digestive functions. The recent sequencing of the platypus genome provided further insights into mammalian evolution. The study of long-beaked echidnas will enable scientists to develop conservation practices, ensuring the animals’ survival in the wild.
The Children’s Zoo at the San Diego Zoo is home to Victor, a short-beaked echidna who also happens to be the zoo’s oldest mammal. My favorite part of going to the zoo is visiting him, and encouraging other zoo guests to pet him. You’re actually allowed to pet him, and his quills are surprisingly soft. Oddly, I don’t have any photos of friends doing this, but someone on Flickr does! Monotremes are some of my favorite animals (not least because the babies are called puggles, and really, how cute is that?). I’m looking forward to learning more about long-beaked echidnas as new information from this study trickles in.