Echidnas, The Spiny Ant-eaters from West Papua

West Papua Animal
Sumber : Wired

At a first glance, this West Papuan animal may remind us of three others. The spikes on its body reminds us of a hedgehog. The face reminds us of an armadillo. The long beak reminds us of a bird. Still, we need to get to know this mysterious creature called echidna.

What is echidna? Meet one of the oldest and most ancient mammals on earth – in West Papua.


The Long-beaked, Spiny Ant-Eaters From West Papua

West Papua Animal
Sumber : New Scientist

Yes, their spines really remind us of hedgehogs. These animals are so much bigger, though, weighing around ten to twenty pounds. The difference is that they do not have many teeth. Their jaws are comprised of single bones. Because of these physical features, echidnas have no ability to bite nor chew.

This is why echidnas are blessed with long, boney beaks protruding from their faces. These beaks are like giant straws attached to their faces. The beaks help them to suck up food. No wonder these unique mammals are also known as spiny ant-eaters from West Papua. They eat earthworms and also other spineless animals, mainly insects.

The way they slurp their food will probably remind us of kids slurping noodles or spaghetti. Echidnas have electro-receptors on their beaks, which help them to detect even the faintest electrical fields underground, done by their said natural preys.

There is also another strange thing about echidnas. Although they are mammals, they lay eggs like platypus do. The eggs are then incubated and hatched inside their pouches, like marsupials do. The females of this species do not have teats to milk their offsprings. Instead, there are glands inside their pouches for their puggles to lap up.

As if such rare amazement is not enough, these West Papuan animals also have the lowest body temperature, compared to other mammals. They only have one hole that works for these bodily functions: to defecate, to urinate, and to reproduce. This physical feature is also similar to platypus, which are also monotremes.

Some Darwinian scientists believe that echidnas may have been the last living relicts of ancient mammals. This means, they believe that these animals from West Papua are an example of transitional beings from reptiles to modern mammals.


Which Animal Categories Are They?

West Papua Animal
Sumber : Wikipedia

Now that we know what echidnas are, categorizing them is still a difficult a difficult idea. Even scientists still have problems deciding what sort of animals they are in existing criterion.

In 1969, taxonomists back then classified echidnas in their own category – long-beaked echidna. Their Latin name was Zaglossus bruijnii. However, in 1998, the classification had to be altered. It turned out that there were similar species which was an endemic to New Guinea, which were down to these three (3) animals:

  • Zaglossus bruijnii alias the Western, long-beaked echidnas.
  • Z. bartoni alias the Eastern, long-beaked echidnas.
  • Z. attenboroughi alias Attenborough’s long-beaked echidnas.

After these findings in 1998, more people began to realize just how critically endangered these echidnas have been. Because of this, each of the sub-species needs to have their own conservation and further research.


Still Virtually Unstudied – and Critically Endangered

Muse Opiang, a biologist and a citizen of PNG (Papua New Guinea) is still the only person who has succeeded in studying echidnas straight in the field. It has been well-known that these mammals are spread around PNG and their neighbours Papua and West Papua.

Studying echidnas is still like trying to solve an on-going, possibly unsolvable mystery of nature. One of the questionable habits these animals have is that they tend to disappear for days underground. There are still no reasons discovered behind what they do.

Since West Papua still has enough rain forests, echidnas are moderately protected. Ironically, this also poses problems for scientists to study them further – while at the same time keep them safe from poachers. These unique mammals are still mysterious.