Today I was unbelievably lucky to see the equivalent of zoological hidden treasure here at Taronga Zoo.
Taronga is one of only two zoos in the world (the other being Moscow Zoo in Russia) to care for the extremely rare Long-beaked Echidna. This species really is a precious gem. Native to the highland jungles of New Guinea (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea), the Long-beaked Echidna is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which reckons that numbers have fallen by over 80% in just 50 years!
Not a lot of people realise that this is the third member of the Monotreme (egg-laying mammal) family, beside the Platypus and the Short-beaked Echidna. But then, not a lot is actually known about this shy and reclusive creature.
Populations are fragmented in their native habitat, and the species has undergone a major decline mainly because it is hunted by local people for its meat, although it is also losing habitat to agriculture and mining. It is now found only where human populations are low, in the most inaccessible mountain forests of New Guinea. We do know that like the short-beaked echidna, it is a long-lived, mainly nocturnal species and a powerful digger – it can burrow itself quickly into the earth to retreat from danger.
In fact, much of what is known about these remarkable creatures is down to the work of Taronga’s Behavioural Biologist, Margaret Hawkins, who has documented some of the behaviours of the two Long-beaked Echidnas here at the Zoo.
We have been trying to breed this male and female pair for 10 years and although they have displayed breeding behaviour at times, unfortunately we have not yet been successful. In fact, the Long-beaked Echidna has never been bred outside of the wild. The problem is that so little is known about the general life-cycle of this cryptic creature, including the reproductive biology and behaviours such as their courtship rituals, frequency of breeding and length of gestation. The behaviour and social systems of wild Long-beaked Echidnas is also largely unknown.
However, we are hopeful that one day our pair may contribute to the world’s population of long-beaked echidnas and in the meantime, our keepers and researchers are recording their own observations on the life-cycle of these animals. Indeed the IUCN has recommended public education, the protection of all known wild populations and continued research into captive breeding programs as the priorities in the conservation of the Long-beaked Echidna.
They are such a special and conservationally valuable species, that for part of the year, when we give the male and female every opportunity to breed, Taronga’s Long-beaked Echidnas are kept off public display, in a shady private enclosure pock-marked with tree roots and the echidnas’ characteristic burrowing holes.
The first thing that struck me when keepers Javiera and Evelyn carefully unearthed one of the echidnas from her den was how huge she was in comparison to the Short-beaked Echidnas I’m more familiar with; she was comparable in size and appearance to an adolescent wombat! Yet despite their size, the keepers have sometimes struggled to find them when the echidnas have burrowed right down into the earth.
Her coat was also reminiscent of wombat fur – short, coarse and dense hairs, interspersed sparsely with much shorter almost invisible spines than her short-beaked cousin. Most impressive was her beautiful long snout, gently curved like a quill, which she uses to forage for earthworms, termites and other invertebrates that form the basis of her diet.
After having a brief exploration around the den burrows, the echidna found a large burrow and squeezed herself carefully back down into the den to return to her slumbers.
For us lucky visitors, it had been a magical experience to see such a beautiful and rare animal, truly like discovering buried treasure!
By Media Relations Assistant, Lorraine