Embarking on a perilous journey through the treacherous mountain range in Papua, Indonesia, Expedition Cyclops achieved a groundbreaking feat by rediscovering a long-lost, critically endangered egg-laying mammal—the Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna. This peculiar creature, adorned with quills and possessing powerful digging feet, hadn’t been sighted for over six decades.
The Cyclops Mountains, spanning less than 90 square miles, proved to be a challenging terrain for the 25-member expedition team. They encountered various obstacles, including malaria, earthquakes, and a remarkable incident where a student researcher endured a leech in their eye for an astonishing 33 hours. James Kempton, the team leader from Oxford, vividly described the mountainous ascent as akin to climbing a rickety ladder with rungs made of decaying wood, spiked and thorny rails, and a frame obscured by hanging vines and falling rocks.
Illegal hunting has plagued this diminutive mountain range, the sole habitat of the critically endangered Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Despite its precarious status, the echidna lacks protection under Indonesian law.
In their pursuit to advocate for the echidna’s protection, Expedition Cyclops collaborated with more than six local partners, including Indigenous groups, students, and Indonesian government organizations. The hope is that their findings will inspire funding for research and conservation efforts in the Cyclops Mountains.
The rediscovery of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna is a vital step in preserving not only a rare species but also safeguarding a unique evolutionary history that spans over 200 million years. As one of the five existing monotreme species, echidnas, along with the platypus, are the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young.
James Kempton emphasized the significance of protecting this evolutionary branch, stating that the extinction of such a lineage would be an irreversible tragedy in the realm of biological history.
Beyond the echidna, Expedition Cyclops delved into unraveling the origins of biodiversity in the Cyclops Mountains. Their findings included the discovery of hundreds of new insect species, at least two frog species, and a novel land and tree-dwelling shrimp species. The region’s biodiversity is intricately linked to the unique geological history of the Cyclops Mountains, once isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean that collided with the mainland of New Guinea as continents drifted together.
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In a remarkable bonus, the expedition also rediscovered Mayr’s honeyeater, a bird species unseen for 15 years. The accomplishments of Expedition Cyclops not only shed light on the importance of conservation but also underline the ecological significance of these remote and challenging terrains.