The Long-beaked Echidna: a rather peculiar mammal

Many of us know what it’s like to fantasise about our favourite magical creature being real. Although we are yet to find a true unicorn (sorry saola, we know you are close), for Harry Potter fans, that dream is almost a reality. The adorable, rodent-like “Niffler” from the Fantastic Beasts franchise is actually based on the very real long-beaked echidna. More specifically, the young of the echidna, known as puggles.

Found across New Guinea, echidnas have a stocky body covered in fur and spines, a small head with no apparent neck and a cylindrical snout that they use to prod the soil to find their food. They have no teeth, which prevents them from being able to bite, and are very gentle, making them the perfect model for the cute and cuddly Niffler. The only difference is that, to our knowledge, echidnas don’t have a tendency to steal shiny objects.

Left is a baby echidna, right is the Niffler (express.co.uk 2)

These nocturnal animals use their “beak”, which is lined with electro-receptors, and claws to probe the earth and locate their prey underground3. However, as echidnas don’t have teeth and can only slightly open their beaks, they use their long, sticky tongue to slurp up earthworms and insects through their long snouts; and because they cannot chew, they crush their food between the many small spikes on their tongue and the roof of their mouth4.

A unique mammal

On top of being adorable, these animals are quite unique in many aspects. All four species of echidna, along with their close relatives, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), are known as monotremes, and they are the only mammals to lay eggs rather than give birth to live young4. Similar to kangaroos, echidnas also have a pouch on their belly, in which they lay their eggs4. They feed their young on milk, but unlike other mammals they do not have teats, instead, milk seeps from the mother’s mammary glands onto her hair and the puggle licks it up. The young echidna stays in the pouch for several weeks feeding on its mother’s milk.

The name “monotreme” comes from the Greek for “single hole”. So, just like reptiles, amphibians and birds, monotremes only have a single orifice for defecation, urination, and reproduction, the cloaca5. This strange mix of attributes makes echidnas very peculiar animals that share features with species from different taxonomic classes, which mammals usually don’t have.

These unusual characteristics that resemble those of reptiles explain the echidna’s name, which is inspired by the name Ekhidna, a Greek goddess who was half human half snake5.

Whilst lacking certain mammalian traits, such as teats, and presenting reptilian or avian traits, such as egg-laying and the presence of a cloaca, echidnas represent the living relics of early mammals, showing traits of mammal evolution from reptilian ancestors. Fossil records for monotremes and echidnas in particular are incomplete, making it quite difficult to identify a precise time when they evolved from reptiles and other mammals. However, monotremes are thought to have diverged from the lineage of mammals which would lead to placental mammals and marsupials during the Mesozoic (252 to 66 million years ago)6. This explains why echidnas and platypuses bear reptilian characteristics which other mammals don’t have. Echidnas are derived from and evolutionary ancestor which was more similar to platypuses, until the terrestrial echidna lineage diverged from the water dwelling platypus lineage about 46 million years ago7.

Echidnas are the last living survivors of early mammals, and with their very distinctive genome, they can teach us a lot about the evolution of mammals.

Unfortunately, these incredible, weird animals are not all doing well. All three species of long-beaked echidnas (genus Zaglossus) are under threat of extinction, with Sir David’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi) being the most threatened, or perhaps already extinct1. The eastern and western long-beaked echidnas (Zaglossus bartoni and Zaglossus bruijnii) are classified as Vulnerable and Critically Endangered respectively by the IUCN and their populations are still decreasing. It is thought that this decline is mainly due to hunting and habitat loss8. Although long-beaked echidnas are being driven to extinction in areas accessible to humans, there is still hope for these peculiar animals, as populations are still strong in the more remote areas of their range1.

Threats to the long-beaked echidna

Long-beaked echidnas live in highland forests and sometimes alpine habitats and hill forests, only in New Guinea7. However, aboriginal rock art found in Australia indicates that a now extinct species of long-beaked echidna used to reside in Australia9. Unfortunately, long-beaked echidna populations in New Guinea are in decline in areas close to human settlements. Echidnas are hunted for their meat by indigenous people, who have been using the natural resources of their lands for centuries, and for whom echidna is a traditional part of their diet1. Although echidnas are elusive animals which are hard to locate, humans are able to hunt them through the use of trained dogs, which can find echidnas easily in every habitat8

Long-beaked echidnas have also lost much of their habitat due to mining, logging and farming7. Habitat loss and hunting have caused echidna populations to become highly fragmented. Furthermore, forest clearance is compromising stronghold and isolated populations as previously remote areas become more accessible to hunting activity and further clearance1.

Why we must protect the long-beaked echidna

If we do not take action to protect long-beaked echidnas where they still occur, the species are in danger of going extinct. These creatures have been alive for millennia, and are a crucial part of the biodiversity and cultures of New Guinea. We still have so much to learn about them and their distinctive genome which makes them so unique within the animal kingdom.

In addition, echidnas are ecosystem engineers, playing an important role in successfully maintaining ecosystem function. As they dig for their food, the animals turn over the soil, incorporating organic matter, loosening the soil and improving water penetration10. Research has revealed that around 200 cubic meters of soil are dug up every year by echidnas searching for food11. By making the soil less compact and more nutrient rich, echidnas participate in improving soil quality which positively influences plant growth and biodiversity.

Whilst the rugged mountains of New Guinea may offer some protection for the echidnas, it makes mapping the species and determining their status difficult. Some conservation efforts have already been attempted, with the ones that respect and include the local people being the most effective. Muse Opiang, a New Guinean and the only person to have carried out field studies on long-beaked echidnas, has partnered with landowners to create a no-hunt conservation zone for echidnas1. This has resulted in an estimated doubling of echidna numbers within that area. If more approaches and programs like this are implemented, long-beaked echidnas have a chance of living on for many years to come.

Even though echidnas aren’t the most popular, charismatic species, it is still crucial to put effort into conserving the lesser known, weird yet just as wonderful species such as long-beaked echidnas. By supporting WAWA conservation, you will help prevent species of weird and wonderful animals like the long-beaked echidna from going extinct, and take part in protecting the earth’s extraordinary and rich biodiversity.

References:

1            Mack, Andrew L. (2015) ‘The Long-beaked Echidna: can we save the earth’s oldest living mammal?’ Mongabay. [online] Available from: https://news.mongabay.com/2015/10/the-long-beaked-echidna-can-we-save-the-earths-oldest-living-mammal/amp/?fbclid=IwAR08OCLnfqmDEAO2nZLbuN5SijF4V2HMrRpsgoEXzAe_5-EBqo1D3NJZwYY (Accessed 27 May 2021)

2           Image: ‘Fantastic Beasts Nifflers are inspired by Echidna puggles’. [online] Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/735499/Fantastic-Beasts-Niffler-what-is-an-Echidna-puggle-Harry-Potter-JK-Rowling (Accessed 8 June 2021)

3           Manger, P. R., Collins, R. and Pettigrew, J. D. (1997) ‘Histological observations on presumed electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors in the beak skin of the long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijnii’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 264(1379), pp. 165–172.

4           Dorling Kindsley Limited (2015) ‘Egg-Laying Mammals’. Animal Encyclopedia, pp. 241–242.

5           Augee, M. L., Gooden, Brett and Musser, Anne (2006) ‘The monotremes’, in Echidna: Extraordinary Egg-laying Mammal, CSIRO, p. 5.

6           Sorin, Anna Bess and Myers, Phil (2000) ‘Monotremata’. Animal Diversity Web. [online] Available from: https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Monotremata.html (Accessed 24 June 2021)

7           ‘Eastern Long-beaked Echidna | Zaglossus bartoni’. [online] Available from: http://www.edgeofexistence.org/species/eastern-long-beaked-echidna/ (Accessed 28 May 2021)

8           ‘Zaglossus bartoni (Eastern Long-beaked Echidna)’. [online] Available from: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/136552/21964496 (Accessed 1 June 2021)

9           Opiang, Muse D. (2009) ‘Home ranges, movement, and den use in Long-beaked echidnas, zaglossus bartoni, from papua new guinea’. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2), pp. 340–346.

10         Cooper, Christine (2016) ‘The secret life of echidnas reveals a world-class digger vital to our ecosystems’. The Conversation. [online] Available from: https://theconversation.com/the-secret-life-of-echidnas-reveals-a-world-class-digger-vital-to-our-ecosystems-67298 (Accessed 25 June 2021)

11            ‘Echidna’. [online] Available from: https://www.animalfunfacts.net/monotremes/1488-echidna.html (Accessed 25 June 2021)

About the author

Iona Chadwick is a multicultural conservationist who loves seeking new experiences and learning more about the wonders of our planet. She is studying Environmental Conservation in Wales and has just returned from an 8-month apprenticeship in Costa Rica with the Macaw Recovery Network, which involved animal husbandry at their breeding centre and working as a field biologist in the Sarapiqui rainforest. She uses her skills in wildlife and travel photography to document her particular interest in wildlife conservation. When Iona isn’t busy studying or doing conservation work, you might find her half way up a tree!