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Rare egg-laying mammal named after Attenborough caught on film for first time

Named after Sir David, Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, has been rediscovered after 60 years.

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Black and white photo of Attenborough's long-beaked echidna

A rare egg-laying mammal named after Sir David Attenborough – which had been lost for more than 60 years – has been captured on video for the first time.

An expedition team has rediscovered Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, an animal that had previously only been recorded once by science in 1961.

It was captured for the first time in photos and video footage using remote trail cameras set up in the Cyclops Mountains of Indonesia’s Papua Province.

The elusive animal has the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater, and the feet of a mole.

Because of its hybrid appearance, it shares its name with a creature of Greek mythology that is half human, half serpent.

The creatures are nocturnal, and so are notoriously difficult to spot.

Additionally, Attenborough’s echidna is currently classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

However, after four weeks, on the last day of Expedition Cyclops, with the last images on the final memory card, the team obtained their shots of the elusive mammal – the first-ever photographs of Attenborough’s echidna.

Dr James Kempton, department of Biology at University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “When we discovered it, there was initially just this great sense of relief.

“Because this expedition was three and a half years of planning and we’d seen signs of the echidna or in the field, the holes that it makes when it forages, but no pictures until that very final day.”

He added: “Initially it’s this intense relief but instantaneously afterwards a great sense of euphoria.

“I was the the last scientist who had remained, I’d already come down from the mountains and I was looking through the images for the echidna and just burst out beaming and ran out into the living room of the base house where we were, and said to my Papuan colleagues, who are still with me, ‘we found it, we found it’.”

Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna is a monotreme – an egg-laying group that separated from the rest of the mammal tree of life about 200 million years ago.

The echidna species is so special because it is one of only five remaining species of monotremes.

To give themselves the best chance of finding the animal, the team deployed more than 80 trail cameras, making multiple ascents of the mountains, and climbing more than 11,000 meters (more than the height of Mount Everest) in the process.

For almost the entire four weeks that the team spent in the forest, the cameras recorded no sign of the echidna.

As well as searching for the echidna, the expedition carried out the first comprehensive assessment of invertebrate, reptile, amphibian and mammal life in the Cyclops Mountains.

By combining scientific techniques with the Papuan team members’ experience and knowledge of the forest, the team made a number of new discoveries, including several dozens of insect species completely new to science.

They also rediscovered Mayr’s honeyeater (Ptiloprora mayri), a bird lost to science since 2008 and named after famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr.

The researchers were surprised to find an entirely new genus of ground and tree-dwelling shrimp.

Dr Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou, a Leverhulme Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, was the lead entomologist for the expedition.

He said: “We were quite shocked to discover this shrimp in the heart of the forest because it is a remarkable departure from the typical seaside habitat for these animals.

“We believe that the high level of rainfall in the Cyclops Mountains means the humidity is great enough for these creatures to live entirely on land.”

The expedition was a partnership between the University of Oxford, Indonesian NGO Yayasan Pelayanan Papua Nenda (YAPPENDA), Cenderawasih University (UNCEN), Papua BBKSDA, and the National Research and Innovation Agency of Indonesia (BRIN), Re:Wild.

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