New Guinean Long-beaked Echidnas in the Kimberley, Western Australia - using ancient DNA analysis of skins and scats to confirm their presence

A project undertaken at the School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide, and supervised by Vicki Thomson

The recent find of a specimen of New Guinean Long-beaked Echidna (Zaglossus) in the Natural History Museum in London (apparently collected in 1903 from the Kimberley of Western Australia - see Figure 1) raises many issues regarding the faunal relationships between Australia and New Guinea. While Long-beaked Echidnas are known as fossils from Australia, their current distribution is otherwise only the New Guinean highlands. As unlikely as it seems, the credible nature of the documents associated with the Kimberley specimen, rock art (see Figure 2) and verbal accounts from the living memory of northern Aboriginals are consistent with the surprising persistence of Long-beaked Echidnas in Australia during the last century. Confirmation of Long-beaked Echidnas in the Kimberley would have dramatic implications for understanding the history of extinctions in Australia because, until recently, no mammal extinctions were known across the north since the appearance of Euopeans, unlike the the rest of the continent where 27 mammal species were lost.

To test whether the Kimberley Long-beaked Echidna persists and how it is related to New Guinean populations, we are undertaking an innovative survey by collecting echidna scats from the Kimberlery region and, using ancient DNA methods, capturing the DNA of the depositing individual. We will also generate genomic data to reconstruct the demographic and divergence history of the historic Kimberley Long-beaked Echidna population and compare it to current populations of Long-beaked Echidnas in New Guinea.

Legends to Figures

Figure 1. Study skin of the Kimberley Zaglossus (BMNH 1939.3315), bearing the original field tags of John T. Tunney, taken from Figure 4 in Helgen, Miguez, Kohen and Helgen (2012) Twentieth century occurrence of the Long-beaked Echidna Zaglossus bruijnii in the Kimberley region of Australia. Zookeys 255:103-132. From top: dorsal, ventral, right lateral, and left lateral views. Scale bar = 5 cm.

Figure 2. Australian rock art of Zaglossus. Photograph of an Aboriginal rock art illustration from Arnhem Land depicting the characteristic long and down-curved beak (and whitish head of some specimens) of Zaglossus (see Murray and Chaloupka 1984), taken from Figure 2 in Helgen, Miguez, Kohen and Helgen (2012) Twentieth century occurrence of the Long-beaked Echidna Zaglossus bruijnii in the Kimberley region of Australia. Zookeys 255:103-132. Photograph by G. Chaloupka.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.