Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

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Zoologist Kristofer Helgen comes face-to-face with a long-beaked echidna in the wild on the island of New Guinea.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

Primitive and Peculiar Mammal May Be Hiding Out in Australia

The mysterious case of the misidentified echidna.

It’d be hard to think of a mammal that’s weirder than the long-beaked, egg-laying echidna. Or harder to find.

Scientists long thought the animal, which has a spine-covered body, a four-headed penis, and a single hole for reproducing, laying eggs, and excreting waste, lived only in New Guinea. The population of about 10,000 is critically endangered. Now there is tantalizing evidence that the echidna, thought to have gone extinct in Australia some 10,000 years ago, lived and reproduced there as recently as the early 1900s and may still be alive on Aussie soil.

The new echidna information comes from zoologist Kristofer Helgen, a National Geographic emerging explorer and curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Institution. Helgen has published a key finding in ZooKeys confirming that a skin and skull collected in 1901 by naturalist John T. Tunney in Australia is in fact the western long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijnii. The specimen, found in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, was misidentified for many years.

Helgen has long been fascinated by echidnas. He has seen only three in the wild. “Long-beaked echidnas are hard to get your hands on, period,” he said. “They are shy and secretive by nature. You’re lucky if you can find one. And if you do, it will be by chance.” Indeed, chance played a role in his identification of the Australian specimen. In 2009, he visited the Natural History Museum of London, where he wanted to see all of the echidnas he could. He took a good look in the bottom drawer of the echidna cabinet, where the specimens with less identifying information are often stored. From among about a dozen specimens squeezed into the drawer, he grabbed the one at the very bottom.

(Related from National Geographic magazine: “Discovery in the Foja Mountains.”)

“As I pulled it out, I saw a tag that I had seen before,” Helgen said. “I was immediately excited about this label. As a zoologist working in museums you get used to certain tags: It’s a collector’s calling card. I instantly recognized John Tunney’s tag and his handwriting.”

John Tunney was a well-known naturalist in the early 20th century who went on collecting expeditions for museums. During an Australian expedition in 1901 for Lord L. Walter Rothschild’s private museum collection, he found the long-beaked echidna specimen. Though he reported the locality on his tag as “Mt Anderson (W Kimberley)” and marked it as “Rare,” Tunney left the species identification field blank. When he returned home, the specimen was sent to the museum in Perth for identification. It came back to Rothschild’s museum identified as a short-beaked echidna.

With the specimen’s long snout, large size, and three-clawed feet, Helgen knew that it must be a long-beaked echidna. The short-beaked echidna, still alive and thriving in Australia today, has five claws, a smaller beak, and is half the size of the long-beaked echidna, which can weigh up to 36 pounds (16 kilograms).

(Watch a video about the short-beaked echidna in Australia.)

As Helgen began tracing the history and journey of the specimen over the last century, he crossed the path of another fascinating mind who had also encountered the specimen. Oldfield Thomas was arguably the most brilliant mammalogical taxonomist ever. He named approximately one out of every six mammals known today.

Thomas was working at the Natural History Museum in London when the Tunney echidna specimen arrived, still misidentified as a short-beaked echidna. Thomas realized the specimen was actually a long-beaked echidna and removed the skull and some of the leg bones from the skin to prove that it was an Australian record of a long-beaked echidna, something just as unexpected then as it is now.

No one knows why Thomas did not publish that information. And the echidna went back into the drawer until Helgen came along 80 years later.

As Helgen became convinced that Tunney’s long-beaked echidna specimen indeed came from Australia, he confided in fellow scientist Mark Eldridge of the Australian Museum about the possibility. Eldridge replied, “You’re not the first person who’s told me that there might be long-beaked echidnas in the Kimberley.” (That’s the Kimberley region of northern Australia.) Scientist James Kohen, a co-author on Helgen’s ZooKeys paper, had been conducting fieldwork in the area in 2001 and spoke to an Aboriginal woman who told him how “her grandmothers used to hunt” large echidnas.

This is “the first evidence of the survival into modern times of any long-beaked echidna in Australia,” said Tim Flannery, professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. “This is a truly significant finding that should spark a re-evaluation of echidna identifications from across northern Australia.”

Helgen has “a small optimism” about finding a long-beaked echidna in the wild in Australia and hopes to undertake an expedition and to interview Aboriginal communities, with their intimate knowledge of the Australian bush.

Though the chances may be small, Helgen says, finding one in the wild “would be the beautiful end to the story.”