Scientist achieves “mission impossible” study of elusive long-beaked echidna

June 10th, 2009 - 2:54 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, June 10 (ANI): A scientist has successfully completed the first study of a rare egg-laying mammal called the long-beaked echidna, which many other field biologists considered “mission impossible”.

The scientist in question is Muse D. Opiang, a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) research intern, who worked in the wilds of Papua New Guinea.

The long-beaked echidna is found only in New Guinea and is a member of the monotremes, a primitive order of mammals that forced zoologists to change their very definitions of what a mammal is.

The study chronicles the first solid data on the animal’s nocturnal foraging behaviors, movement patterns, and home-range sizes for the species.

Unlike all other mammals, monotremes, like the echidna and the better-known platypus, lay eggs.

“All of the time and effort invested in the study has paid off with new insights into the natural history of this seldom seen and unusual mammal,” said Opiang. “These findings will help inform conservation strategies for the species, which is threatened by hunting and habitat loss,” he added.

The nocturnal, subterranean lifestyle of the species represented a real challenge for field research, with some experts declaring the species impossible to study.

It did take some time, nearly 6,000 man-hours of fieldwork between 2001-2005. Opiang spent 500 hours in the field before locating his first animal.

In the end, Opiang managed to capture 22 individual echidnas (15 adults and 7 juveniles), and affixed radio transmitters to 9 adults and 3 juveniles.

Initially, transmitters were attached to spines, but the constant burrowing and digging of the echidnas resulted in transmitters falling off.

The ankle proved to be a more reliable placement point. Home ranges for the tracked echidnas averaged 39 hectares.

The study located over 200 den sites, most of which were underground, while others were found in cliff faces and in thick vegetation. One lactating female was found.

Other signs recorded in the study were nose-pokes (when the echidna pokes its tube-like snout in the soil in search of invertebrate prey) and digs (deeper holes excavated with the echidna’s long claws).

“The limited information on the long-beaked echidna’s biology, feeding behavior and ecology has prevented conservationists from formulating plans for protecting this elusive and threatened animal,” said Dr. Ross Sinclair, Director of WCS’s Papua New Guinea program.

“The research methods developed by Opiang and the data he gathered can now help us to manage and protect this rare and species,” he added. (ANI)

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