Lost and Found: Rediscovering a Lost Mammal in Indonesia's Cyclops Mountains

Lost and Found: Rediscovering a Lost Mammal in Indonesia's Cyclops Mountains

Scientists have recently rediscovered a long-lost species of mammal in the Cyclops Mountains of Papua, Indonesia. The discovery occurred during the Cyclops Expedition in the Cyclops Mountains, where researchers managed to find the echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi, also known as Sir David Attenborough's long-snouted echidna. This success was the result of a four-week expedition led by scientists from Oxford University, and this photo was taken on the last day of the expedition.

This is the first discovery since 1961 when the species was last recorded and thought to be extinct. For 62 years, the existence of the echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi could only be confirmed by a single preserved specimen housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. The specimen was originally discovered near the summit of Mount Rara in the Cyclops Mountains by Dutch botanist Pieter van Royen in 1961.

The only specimen found in 1961. Image by  Naturalis Biodiversity Center

This echidna, with the Latin name Zaglossus attenboroughi, has a spiny, porcupine-like body, walks on four legs, and has a long, straight snout. They live in the remote forests of the Cyclops Mountains, and the residents of Yongsu Spari village at the foot of the mountain know them as "payangko".

Despite sharing a name with the Greek mythological creature that is half woman and half snake, echidnas are described by the team as shy creatures that usually stay in burrows at night and are difficult to find.

James Kempton, a biologist involved in the study, explained that the main difference between this mammal and others is that it belongs to the monotreme group. This is an egg-laying group that separated from other mammals about 200 million years ago.

There are only five species of mammals in the world that lay eggs, known as monotremes, and Zaglossus attenboroughi is one of them. This species is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Echidnas have a close relationship with the culture of the local communities where they are found. According to local tradition, conflict resolution can be achieved by sending one of the disputing parties into the forest in search of the mammal, while the other party is directed to the sea in search of the marlin. This was revealed by Yongsu Sapari elders, as reported by a team of scientists from Oxford University.

Both creatures are considered extremely difficult to find, so it often takes decades or even a generation to find them. Once found, however, they symbolize the end of conflict and the return of harmonious relationships.

During their journey, Team Kempton survived earthquakes, malaria, and even leeches attached to their eyeballs. They undertook this research mission in collaboration with the villagers of Yongsu Sapari, helping them navigate and explore remote areas of northeast Papua.

Some of the areas surveyed are customary forest areas owned by several tribes living at the foot of the mountain. Some of these areas are considered sacred, and foreigners are not normally allowed to enter them.

The researchers entered a forest rarely explored by humans.

Kempton said they received special permission from the locals because of the positive nature of their research. They intended to study animals rather than hunt, and had no intention of cutting down trees, so they were allowed to travel to the top of the mountain.

The locals believed that the rangers would protect those with good intentions and punish those with bad intentions.

Dr. Leonidas Romanos-Davranoglou, an Oxford University entomologist who was also involved in the research, spoke about the importance of local communities contributing to research and conservation efforts. They gained a lot of knowledge from villagers who were open and accepting of their presence as guests in their homes, he said.

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