Long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus spp.)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderMonotremata
FamilyTachyglossidae
GenusZaglossus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 45 - 90 cm (2)
Weight5 - 10 kg (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) by the IUCN Red List 2002 (1), and listed under Appendix II of CITES (3).

Long-beaked echidnas are egg-laying mammals, known as monotremes, a group that also includes the duck-billed platypus and the short-beaked echidna (4). The taxonomy of long-beaked echidnas has been contentious but currently three species are recognised: Zaglossus bruijnii, Z. bartoni (composed of 4 distinct subspecies) and Z. attenboroughi (5). Until recently only one species was acknowledged (Z. bruijnii) and as only small morphological differences distinguish this species from Z. bartoni it is difficult to tell individuals apart. In general, Zaglossus spp. have long, downward curving narrow snouts (2). The small mouth and large nostrils are located at the end of the snout and the tongue is long and agile (2). The limbs are powerful, with strong claws that are important in digging for food (6). Males can be distinguished from females by their larger size and the possession of a horny spur on the ankles of the hind limbs (2). The species within this genus range in size from the largest living monotremes at almost a metre long, to the small Zaglossus attenboroughi (5). There is a wide variety of colour and density of fur even within each species, ranging from black individuals in which the spines are barely noticeable, to sparsely haired paler echidnas (5). In general, Z. bruijnii is distinguished by the possession of three claws on the fore and hindfeet, whereas there are five on the forefeet of Z. bartoni and Z. attenboroughi (5). Z. attenboroughi is much smaller than the other species, possessing a shorter beak and shorter fur (5).

Found only in mountainous regions of the island of New Guinea, in both Papua New Guinea in the west and Irian Jaya on the Indonesian side (2). The three species have distinct ranges; Z. bruijnii is found in the far west of New Guinea, Z. attenboroughi is known from a single mountain peak in the Cyclops Mountains, and Z. bartoni is principally found in a swathe along the centre of the island, where each of the 4 subspecies have separate ranges (5).

Found in a great variety of altitudes, long-beaked echidnas have been recorded in both rainforest and alpine meadows (4).

Long-beaked echidnas are largely nocturnal and solitary (4). Echindas are sometimes known as spiny anteaters, although the long-beaked echidna feeds mainly on earthworms (7). The tongue has a series of spikes at the front, which are used to 'hook' and reel-in worms and other prey items (4). During the day, individuals seek refuge in burrows, hollow logs and cavities in the ground (4). The long-beaked echidna usually lays one egg into its pouch, which hatches after ten days (4); the infant then remains in the pouch until the spines develop (2). There are no teats; instead milk is lapped from 'milk patches' inside the pouch (2). When threatened, echidnas can erect their spines, and when on soft ground they can burrow down into the substrate so that the spine-free underside is protected. If on a hard surface they roll up into a ball, in a similar way to hedgehogs (2).

The decline of these echidnas is probably due mainly to hunting, which continues today with trained dogs (7). Other threats include habitat loss through logging, farming and mining (7). It may be that Z. attenboroughi is already extinct as the only known specimen was collected in 1961 and the species is presumed to be restricted to a single mountain summit with only 50 square kilometres of habitat (5).

This echidna is fully protected in Irian Jaya; it is protected in Papua New Guinea but not from the traditional forms of hunting which continue there (7). The Australasian Marsupial and Monotreme Specialist Group of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) has recommended that priorities for the conservation of this species should include a public education programme, protection of all known populations and the initiation of research into captive breeding programmes (7). At present, captive individuals are only kept at Taronga Zoo, Sydney and a breeding programme is being attempted (5). The recent reclassification of the genus is particularly important for conservation efforts (5). The fossil evidence suggests that monotremes have changed very little during the last 100 million years (2), and urgent action is needed to protect this ancient and intriguing mammal from extinction.

To learn about efforts to conserve long-beaked echidnas see:

Authenticated (18/12/02) by Tim Flannery. Director, South Australia Museum

http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2002)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. CITES (October, 2002)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Animal Info (February, 2002)
    http://www.animalinfo.org/species/zaglbrui.htm
  5. Flannery, T.F. and Groves, C.P. (1998) A revision of the genus Zaglossus (Monotremata, Tachyglossidae), with description of new species and subspecies. Mammalia, 62(3): 367 - 396.
  6. Animal Diversity Web (February, 2002)
    http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/zaglossus/z._bruijni$narrative.html
  7. WWF (February, 2002)
    http://www.panda.org/resources/publications/species/underthreat/page11.htm