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How the team searching for a lost echidna finally found it

The rugged Cyclops Mountains, covered in tropical forest, didn’t yield any secrets about the strange mammal’s whereabouts easily

By Andrew Tilker on November 09, 2023   duration

Clouds hangover the crests of the Cyclops Mountains on the northern coast of Papua. Photo by Charlie Northcott.
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It was the morning of the last day of fieldwork and we sat huddled together around the campfire, silently eating our breakfast, trying to stay warm. We were at nearly 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) elevation near the top of the mountain, and the trees were moss-covered, gnarled, cloaked in epiphytes: forest that was as spectacular as it was difficult to work in. Everyone was tired: tired from the previous week of hiking in the mountains, tired from the steady diet of rice and instant noodles, tired from the previous night when we had tossed and turned in the cold and slept little. It was then that I reflected on what had brought me to the Cyclops Mountains of Papua, Indonesia, to some of the most unexplored tropical forests in the world, searching for one of the most little-known–and, frankly, bizarre–mammals that science has ever stumbled upon.

There is no doubt about it: echidnas are wonderfully weird. Picture a spiny hedgehog with a long toothless snout that lays eggs. Like the Duck-billed Platypus, the echidna seems to break all of the stereotypes of what a mammal is supposed to be. Echidnas hang out with a strictly marsupial crowd, living only in Australia and New Guinea. Among the four echidna species, Attenborough’s Echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi) is unique. It is found only in the Cyclops Mountains on the northern coast of Papua, Indonesia, on the island of New Guinea. It is also a lost species: Attenborough’s Echidna was described from a single specimen collected in 1961, and hasn’t been definitively recorded since. We were here to answer one question: Did Attenborough’s Echidna still exist in the Cyclops Mountains?

The expedition was led by a local NGO called YAPPENDA and Oxford University, with support from Cenderawasih University (UNCEN), the local village of Yongsu village, and Re:wild. The search for Attenborough’s Echidna was the brainchild of YAPPENDA and Re:wild, with support from James Kempton of Oxford. James had brought together the coalition to find the species, and I was here, on behalf of Re:wild. We were a motley group of Westerners and Papuans, but from the beginning, I had no doubt that, if Attenborough’s Echidna could be found, then this was the team to do it.

Finding the echidna was about more than moving one more species from the “lost” to “found” categories in the ledgers of science — important though that is. It was about finding the species as a first step to implementing effective conservation to ensure its survival. We also hoped to use Attenborough’s Echidna as a flagship species for the biodiversity of the Cyclops more broadly. Finally, it was about empowering young up-and-coming Papuan conservationists — the people who held the future of the echidna and the Cyclops in their hands.

Gison Morib, with Cenderawasih University (UNCEN), setting up camera traps in search of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Photo by Expedition Cyclops 2023)

But finding the echidna was not going to be easy. For starters, the Cyclops Mountains are rugged and covered in dense tropical rainforest. Then, in order to mount the search for the lost species, the team needed to get permission from the government of Indonesia for the research, followed by negotiations with the local villages surrounding the mountain range, within whose traditional ancestral domain we would be working. And finally, the echidna itself — assuming it survived — would be secretive, elusive, and probably rare.

We primarily searched for the echidna using camera traps:  cameras with motion sensors that take  photos when animals walk in front of them. The fact that camera traps can operate for months on end without eating, sleeping, or stopping for a coffee break makes them the perfect tool to use to search for lost mammal species. We had a total of 80 cameras for our search, which meant that we had 80 unblinking eyes in the forest that could search for the echidna. But just getting them set into the forest would be an adventure in itself.

We set off on our first morning from Yongsu, a small coastal village on the foot of the Cyclops mountains, excited and cheerful. As we moved from the bright sunshine into the dark coolness of the forest, there was an almost tangible electricity in the air. We had done it. After years of planning, the expedition had begun: it was finally happening. We hiked that day to 2,600 feet (800 meters), set up camp, grabbed a handful of camera traps, and then began to explore the forest.

James and I were joined by Gison Morib, a university student at UNCEN, and Zachariah, a resident of Yongsu. It was immediately clear how valuable Gison and Zachariah would be to our search efforts: Gison was hard-working, observant, and a quick learner, and Zachariah knew the forest like his own backyard. That first day we set all of our cameras, but as we wandered back into camp that evening, leech-bitten and knees aching, it was obvious that this mountain was not going to give up its secrets easily.

The forest around the first camp looked promising, but we needed to get higher. We hadn’t seen any signs of echidna, and moreover, the only known record of the species was at 5,200 feet (1,600 meters).

Gison Morib (left), with Cenderawasih University (UNCEN) and James Kempton, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, looking for ideal spots to mount camera traps in the Cyclops Mountains. (Photo by Expedition Cyclops 2023).

Over the next four days James, Gison, and I — accompanied at times by Zachariah, other UNCEN students, and YAPPENDA staff — scoured the higher elevation forest for good camera trap spots. The forest here was different from the lowland forest: denser, mossier, more mysterious. It was also more rugged: the mountain in this area was a jumble of up-and-down peaks and valleys peppered with rocky cataracts. Each day we pushed harder and farther than the last, and each evening we stumbled back to camp satisfied with the work we had accomplished but completely beat. 

After a couple days of this signs of wear were beginning to show on the team. The long hours of hiking in difficult forest, combined with a diet of rice and noodles and leech bites that were becoming infected in the humid conditions, had pushed us to our limits. On the last full day of the trip a smaller group made an all-out attempt to go as high and far as we could. We set out early and, over the next 10 hours, hiked to 4,265 feet (1,300 meters) and set cameras in an area that was among the most remote and forbidding that I’ve ever encountered.

When we packed up camp to return to Yongsu and then Jayapura, we were bone-tired. But we had set more than 50 cameras to search for the echidna, and because of that, we felt that all of the aches and sores had been worth it. We spent two days recovering: soaking our feet in iodine to disinfect the leech bites, drinking real coffee, eating home-cooked food, and reflecting on the expedition. 

But there was one issue that bothered us: Even after hiking all of those miles in the forest, we had not once seen anything resembling traces of an echidna. Was the echidna really gone? Were we looking in the wrong place? We all looked at our flight schedules and decided that, if we pushed hard, we could do a second trip — and try to get to the top of the mountain.

We left the next day at 5 a.m. and piled into the YAPPENDA vehicles. The prayer from the local muezzin reverberated in the grayish twilight, which put me into a somber, even reflective, mood. In a few minutes we had reached the base of the mountain and we once again entered the forest. The following 12 hours were some of the most physically challenging that I have faced anywhere in my fieldwork: a slow slog that led us from almost sea level to the top of the mountain. As we floundered into our final camp, breathless and aching, there was the sense that this area was different. Somehow this forest — with its stunted trees, moss covered limbs, and omnipresent carnivorous pitcher plants — gave the impression that it might hold the secrets we were searching for.

The following morning we ate a mostly silent breakfast around the campfire and I shook myself from my reveries. It was time to get to work. We split into two teams: James and Gison would push to the summit, and I would work with Rueben, a young YAPPENDA volunteer, to set cameras in the forest below our camp. James’ team stumbled north, and my team stumbled south, wondering if this last final trip would be worth the effort. Soon we found a promising sign: long, fingerlike holes made in the damp earth. Could these be poke-holes made by an echidna as it snuffled through the leaf litter looking for earthworms? 

We set a camera over the spot, more hopeful now than ever that we were close to finding this spiny ghost. When we got back to camp that evening, James also had good news: his team had found multiple poke-holes, indicating that more than one echidna might live on this remote mountaintop. That last evening in the forest we all had one thought on our minds: Would our cameras finally capture the long lost Attenborough’s Echidna? Given how elusive the species was reported to be, this was by no means guaranteed. And yet we felt closer than ever to our goal.

The journey back to Europe was anticlimactic: the usual sequence of crowded airports and pre-packaged airline food. And then it was back to the real world, back to an overstuffed inbox, back to a normal everyday routine. At least until one morning when I opened my messages and saw a photo from James and, for a microsecond, the world seemed to stand still: it was a grainy black-and-white video of a spiked animal with a long snout waddling through the center of the frame. Subsequent exchanges with mammal experts confirmed that this was Attenborough’s Echidna. We had found it. And in that moment the weeks of accumulated exhaustion from the fieldwork vanished: all I could think about was how fortunate we were to share the planet with this now no-longer-lost mammal, and the exciting work that lay ahead to protect it.

Camera trap photo of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Photo by Expedition Cyclops 2023)

About the author

Andrew Tilker

Andrew Tilker is Species Conservation Coordinator at Re:wild. He is passionate about species conservation, especially for little-known mammals in tropical ecosystems. Andrew has a Master’s from the University of Texas at Austin and a doctoral degree from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

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