Taronga’s Australian Fauna keepers were very saddened by the passing of Sheila, our female Eastern Long-beaked Echidna, last week.
The elderly echidna passed away unexpectedly in her off-display enclosure on Thursday.
Sheila arrived at Taronga Zoo as a juvenile from Papua New Guinea in 1963. Her exact age is unknown but thought to be at least 53, making her the oldest Long-beaked Echidna on record and one of the oldest mammals at Taronga.
Her male companion, JR, is estimated to be around 47 years old and is now the only remaining Long-beaked Echidna in human care outside of Papua New Guinea.
After a short stay at Taronga, Sheila moved to London Zoo in 1965 and remained there until 1994. It was there she was introduced to JR and another female named Digger. 1994 was a significant year in Taronga’s history, as Sheila, JR and Digger were flown to Sydney to join the Zoo’s resident female, Snuff, as part of a planned breeding program.
Very little is known about Long-beaked Echidnas and unfortunately no zoo has been successful in breeding them. In their native habitat of Papua New Guinea, all three species are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Although protected by the Papua New Guinean and Indonesian governments, these echidnas continue to be hunted by locals. Clearing of forests has also contributed to their decline.
Weighing around 12kg, Long-beaked Echidnas are notably larger than their short-beaked cousins, with much denser fur, shorter spines and a longer downward-curved beak, which they use to plunge into soft soil looking for earthworms and insect larvae.
Keepers would often enter the enclosure in the mornings to find many characteristic “nose pokes”, created by Sheila and JR looking for worms during the night. We would also find mystery “dirt balls”, the origin of which keepers were never able to establish. By setting up cameras, we were able to record the nocturnal activities of the pair and learn about their natural behaviours.
Sheila touched the lives of many keepers at Taronga and will be greatly missed. She contributed a great deal to our understanding of this incredibly rare and extraordinary species.
It is hoped this knowledge, along with recent developments in breeding short-beaked echidnas, will assist with the conservation of Long-beaked Echidnas in the future.
- Keeper, Nat Holdsworth