Australian echidnas help other wildlife


This video says about itself:

13 August 2015

The “short-beaked echidna” is one of four living species of echidna and the only member of the genus “Tachyglossus”. The short-beaked echidna is covered in fur and spines and has a distinctive snout and a specialized tongue, which it uses to catch its prey at a great speed. Like the other extant monotremes, the short-beaked echidna lays eggs; the monotremes are the only group of mammals to do so.

From Science News:

An echidna’s to-do list: Sleep. Eat. Dig up Australia.

Short-beaked species of this mammal is a valuable ecosystem engineer

By Susan Milius

12:00pm, November 18, 2016

With no nipples and reptilelike eggs, short-beaked echidnas look like a first draft of a mammal. Yet, as Australia’s other digging mammals decline from invasive predators, the well-defended echidna is getting new love as an ecosystem engineer.

The only mammals today that lay eggs are the four echidna species and the duck-billed platypus. Eggs are probably a holdover from the time before mammals split from reptiles. Each year or so, the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) lays one leathery egg “about the size of a grape,” says Christine Cooper of Curtin University in Perth. Instead of constructing a nest, mom deposits the egg in her version of a kangaroo pouch and waddles around with it.

When the egg hatches about 10 days later, two patches of pores in mom’s pouch ooze milk, and the baby laps it off her skin. The puggle, as a baby echidna is called, hitchhikes for weeks as mom forages. The ride ends, however, when the puggle starts growing spines. “Then mum’s like, ‘Nope, no more,’ and she will put [baby] into a burrow,” Cooper says.

Puggles live in mom’s pouch until they get prickly

Puggles live in mom’s pouch until they get prickly.

Ben Nottidge/Alamy Stock Photo

Foraging echidnas claw around and poke their snouts into termite or ant nests, flicking out a long gooey tongue to flypaper up insects. The goo comes from unusually large salivary glands, but a quick echidna lick doesn’t slime. When Cooper wears sandals to visit captive echidnas, she says, “it’s ‘ooh, that tickles!’”

Echidnas’ toes point backward on their hind paws but forward on the front, and their short legs slant outward in a bit of a reptile sprawl, says Christofer Clemente of University of the Sunshine Coast in Sippy Downs, Australia. They rock side to side as they walk, moving both left, then both right feet. They can’t run, but they’re strong diggers, Clemente says. They not only claw around for food, but also defend their soft undersides by quick-digging into the ground, spikes up.

Acceleration-sensing instruments strapped onto short-beaked echidnas show they spend about 12 percent of their day excavating, researchers report in the Oct. 15 Journal of Experimental Biology. Over a year, a single echidna churns up some 204 cubic meters of soil, the scientists calculate, as it hunts for insects or scrabbles for shelter.  That’s enough to bury more than 100 full-sized fridges.

That digging benefits the echidna’s unusual diversity of habitat — from rainforest to desert. Echidnas don’t need to bury fridges, but soil turnover and nutrient mixing keep ecosystems humming along.

Baby echidna recovering from bulldozer in Australia


This video from Australia says about itself:

Meet Newman the Echidna Puggle at the Taronga Zoo

17 April 2015

Newman was rescued after its burrow was damaged by a bulldozer, injuring the little echidna. Keepers have nursed the baby back to health and it is now thriving under their care.

More, including photos, about this is here.

Echidna hatching from egg, video


This video says about itself:

The echidna is quite unique as it’s a mammal that lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young. This clip is an excerpt from our 1974 production, “Comparative biology of lactation”. A young echidna is called a puggle.

Video transcript available here.

From Smithsonian magazine in the USA:

Watch This Adorable Mammal Hatch From an Egg

A 1974 nature video shows a spiny anteater hatching

By Mary Beth Griggs

Via one of our favorite video blogs, The Kids Should See This, check out this incredible video of an echidna—also known as a spiny anteater—hatching from an egg. Echidnas live in Australia and on the island of New Guinea, and they are some of the only egg laying mammals in existence, along with the fantastically weird platypus.

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO, made this video in 1974. On the organization’s YouTube page, there are many more examples of wonderfully weird old example[s] of animal videos, including vintage favorites like the echidna hatching or a 1965 educational video about the birth of a red kangaroo. (That last one shows the actual birth of a live kangaroo and is not for the faint of heart.)

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Australian echidnas’ spurs, new research


This video is called World’s Weirdest: Echidna

From The University of Sydney in Australia:

Echidna spur not venomous

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The echidna‘s spur is used for communicating during breeding, not venom.

The function of a spur on the hind leg of echidnas has been revealed by research at the University of Sydney.

Male platypuses and echidnas both secrete from a spur in their hind leg. In platypuses the spur injects venom into competitors causing pain and swelling but the purpose of the echidna spur and secreted substance has been unclear.

“A waxy secretion is produced around the base on the echidna spur, and we have shown that it is not venomous but is used for communicating during breeding,” said Professor Kathy Belov, lead author of the study published in PLOS One.

Professor Belov is from the University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Monotremes are egg-laying mammals and Australia and New Guinea are the only places in the world that have living species. Australia is home to the platypus and short-beaked echidna.

One of monotremes’ unique characteristics is spurs on the males’ hind legs. In platypuses the gland attached to the spur increases in size during the breeding season and produces a venom injected into competing males during the breeding season.

In male echidnas, spurs are in the same position and the glands also get bigger during the breeding season. But the spur cannot be erected and there have never been reports of envenomations by echidnas.

“There is physiological, molecular and fossil evidence to suggest the ancestors of both platypuses and echidnas were venomous,” said Professor Belov.

In a collaboration with the University of Queensland, University of Tasmania, and Washington University School of Medicine, researchers from the University of Sydney compared the genes switched on in platypuses’ and short-beaked echidnas’ venom glands during the breeding season.

The study analysed the RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules in the two glands, looking for similarities and differences in order to determine the function of the secretions in echidnas and to understand the evolutionary history of the venom gland.

“We expected to see high levels of similarity between the two species but were fascinated to discover that the echidna ‘venom’ gland secretion was markedly different to that from a platypus,” Professor Belov said.

“There was no correlation between the top 50 most highly expressed genes in the echidna and platypus secretions. They produce completely different secretions.

“Overall the echidna gland looks more like a scent gland. Instead of its aggressive spurring role the echidna’s spur secretion is probably linked with either communicating its reproductive status with females or with competing males.

“Historically the monotreme gland contained venom. The loss of the echidna’s ability to erect its spur and other unknown evolutionary forces have acted over millions of years,” said Professor Belov.

“This evolution has resulted in the gradual disappearance of the venom in the spur secretion and the evolution of a new role for the gland.”

Giant platypus fossil discovery in Australia


This is an artist’s reconstruction of Obdurodon tharalkooschild. The inset shows its first lower molar. Image credit: Peter Schouten

From Wildlife Extra:

Giant extinct toothed platypus discovered

A fossil of a prehistoric giant toothed platypus discovered in Australia

November 2013: A giant carnivorous platypus with razor sharp teeth once roamed the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland, Australia, researchers from the University of New South Wales have discovered. Named Obdurodon tharalkooschild it is believed to have lived around 15 million years ago and was about one metre in length, twice the size of its modern day relative the peculiar looking, egg-laying, otter footed, beaver tailed duck-billed platypus. And unlike today’s relation it had functional, sharp teeth, which were used to slice and chew crayfish, frogs and small turtles.

The discovery of the new species’ tooth in a limestone deposit was made by Rebecca Pian, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and former UNSW Honours student, and Professor Mike Archer and Associate Professor Suzanne Hand, of the UNSW School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“A new platypus species, even one that is highly incomplete, is a very important aid in developing understanding about these fascinating mammals,” says Rebecca Pian.

It is believed that, like other platypuses, it was probably a mostly aquatic mammal, and would have lived in and around the freshwater pools in the forests that covered the Riversleigh area millions of years ago.

“Discovery of this new species was a shock to us because prior to this, the fossil record suggested that the evolutionary tree of platypuses was a relatively linear one,” says Mike Archer. “Now we realize that there were unanticipated side branches on this tree, some of which became gigantic.”

The name Obdurodon tharalkooschild derives from the Greek for “lasting tooth” and an Australian folk story about the genus’ origin that features a strong-willed female duck who ignored her parents’ warnings and was set upon by Bigoon, a water-rat, leading to unusual-looking offspring.

See also here. And here.

The scientific description of this new species is here.

‘Extinct’ Australian echidna still living?


This video from Australia says about itself:

19 Oct 2010

Taronga has recently moved one of its two Long-beaked Echidnas into the Australian Nightlife nocturnal exhibit creating a world first for the zoo. This means that Taronga is now the only place in the world where people can see all three [?] species of monotreme together. A monotreme is actually a rare family of mammals unique to Australia, which lay eggs. They include the Platypus, the Long-beaked Echidna and the Short-beaked Echidna.

From Wildlife Extra:

Long-beaked echidna, thought extinct in Australia since Ice Age, may still cling on in Kimberley

Scientists discover Australian long-beaked echidna in London’s Natural History Museum

January 2013. The western long-beaked echidna, one of the world’s five egg-laying species of mammal, became extinct in Australia thousands of years ago…or did it? Smithsonian scientists and colleagues have found evidence suggesting that not only did these animals survive in Australia far longer than previously thought, but that they may very well still exist in parts of the country today.

Small, Critically Endangered, population survives on New Guinea

With a small and declining population confined to the Indonesian portion of the island of New Guinea, the western long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii) is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Considered extinct in Australia since Ice Age – but……………

It is also considered extinct in Australia, where fossil remains from the Pleistocene epoch demonstrate that it did occur there tens of thousands of years ago. Ancient Aboriginal rock art also supports the species’ former presence in Australia. However, no modern record from Australia was known to exist until scientists took a closer look at one particular specimen stored in cabinets in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. Previously overlooked, the specimen’s information showed that it was collected from the wild in north-western Australia in 1901-thousands of years after they were thought to have gone extinct there.

“Sometimes while working in museums, I find specimens that turn out to be previously undocumented species,” said Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, the lead author and the scientist to first report the significance of the echidna specimen. “But in many ways, finding a specimen like this, of such an iconic animal, with such clear documentation from such an unexpected place, is even more exciting.”

Egg-laying mammals

Long-beaked echidnas are known as monotremes-a small and primitive order of mammals that lay eggs rather than give birth to live young. The platypus, the short-beaked echidna, and the three species of long-beaked echidna (Western, Eastern and Sir David Attenborough’s) are the only monotremes that still exist. The platypus is found only in eastern Australia, the short-beaked echidna is found in Australia and New Guinea, and the long-beaked echidnas were previously known as living animals only from the island of New Guinea. Long-beaked echidnas, which grow to twice the size of the platypus or the short-beaked echidna, are beach-ball sized mammals covered in coarse blackish-brown hair and spines. They use their long, tubular snout to root for invertebrates in the forests and meadows of New Guinea. Among many peculiar attributes, reproduction is one of the most unique-females lay a single leathery egg directly into their pouch where it hatches in about 10 days.

Found in Kimberley in 1901

The re-examined specimen in London reveals that the species was reproducing in Australia at least until the early 20th century. It was collected in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia by naturalist John T. Tunney in 1901, on a collecting expedition for the private museum of Lord L. Walter Rothschild in England. Despite collecting many species of butterflies, birds and mammals (some new to science at the time), no full report on his specimens has ever been published. The collection, including the long-beaked echidna specimen, was then transferred to the Natural History Museum in London in 1939 after Rothschild’s death. It was another 70 years before Helgen visited the museum in London and came across the specimen with the original Tunney labels, which both challenged previous thinking about the species’ recent distribution and offered insight into where it may still occur.

“The discovery of the western long-beaked echidna in Australia is astonishing,” said Professor Tim Flannery of Macquarie University in Sydney, referring to the new study. “It highlights the importance of museum collections, and how much there is still to learn about Australia’s fauna.”

Search for live animals

Learning whether the western long-beaked echidna still exists in Australia today will take time. “The next step will be an expedition to search for this animal,” Helgen said. “We’ll need to look carefully in the right habitats to determine where it held on, and for how long, and if any are still out there.” To find it, Helgen hopes to draw on his experience with the species in New Guinea and to interview those who know the northern Australian bush best. “We believe there may be memories of this animal among Aboriginal communities, and we’d like to learn as much about that as we can,” he said.

With the species in danger of extinction, finding Australian survivors or understanding why and when they vanished is an important scientific goal. “We hold out hope that somewhere in Australia, long-beaked echidnas still lay their eggs,” said Helgen.

The team’s findings are published in the Dec. 28, 2012 issue of the journal ZooKeys.

One should hope that Big Oil and Big Mining, which threaten dinosaur tracks in the Kimberley region, will not also threaten western long-beaked echidnas, if they survive there.