F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - An Ancient 'Transitional' Species Rediscovered - An Egg-Laying Mammal

Saturday 11 November 2023

Creationism in Crisis - An Ancient 'Transitional' Species Rediscovered - An Egg-Laying Mammal

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi
Found at last: bizarre, egg-laying mammal finally rediscovered after 60 years | University of Oxford

Creationists are always clamouring for evidence of 'transitional' species or fossils, only to dismiss them as 'fully-formed species' so 'not transitional'. What they're demanding is that we show them something that no biologist ever claimed existed - a fossil of something that was half one species and half another - a croccoduck or a half human-half chimpanzee fossil, in other words evidence of their childish parody of evolution.

Instead, what we have is countless examples of species with archaic features and stem species showing characteristics of more primitive taxons and later species that would evolve from it. In fact, every fossil ever found is 'transitional' between its parent generation and its descendant population - a fact only understandable by those with a grasp of what evolution is and how it works over time.

And one such group of animals showing archaic features that show the transition from egg-laying reptiles and the mammals that evolved from them are the monotremes, egg-laying mammals such as the platypus and echidnas - vertebrates that are warm-blooded, have fur and feed their young on milk secreted by special glands on the female's body.

Map of New Guinea showing location of Cyclops Mountains

Google Map
And now an expedition of researchers - 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) and Re:Wild - from have rediscovered a 'lost' species of echidna, Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, named after the British naturalist, broadcaster and Humanist, Sir Richard Attenborough.
Newly-discovered tree-dwelling shrimp

Credit: Expedition Cyclops.
The echidna was discovered in the remote Cyclops Mountains in the north of the Indonesian part of New Guinea along with several other 'lost' species or species new to science, including Mayr's honeyeater, a bird not seen since 2008, a bizarre tree-dwelling shrimp, several new species of insect and a new cave system.

Incidentally, if a creationist could explain the intelligence behind designing a shrimp to live in trees, I'd be very grateful, as, if anything it's even more bizarre than designing plants and fish to live in deserts.

Dr Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou (a Leverhulme Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History), the lead entomologist for the expedition believes the high level of rainfall and humidity in the Cyclops Mountains means that these shrimps can live out of water.

From Oxford University's press release:

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna 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 reason it appears so unlike other mammals is because it is a member of the monotremes – an egg-laying group that separated from the rest of the mammal tree-of-life about 200 million years ago.

Dr James Kempton
Department of Biology
University of Oxford.
One of the world's most unusual mammals finally caught on film

Recorded by science only once in 1961, Attenborough's long-beaked echidna is a monotreme: an evolutionarily distinct group of egg-laying mammals that includes the platypus. This echidna species is so special because it is one of only five remaining species of monotremes, the sole guardians of this remarkable branch of the tree of life. Echidnas are notoriously difficult to find since they are nocturnal, live in burrows, and tend to be very shy. Attenborough's long-beaked echidna has never been recorded anywhere outside the Cyclops Mountains, and is currently classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

To give themselves the best chance of finding one, the team deployed over 80 trail cameras, making multiple ascents of the mountains, and climbing more than 11,000 meters (more than the height of 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. On the last day, 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. The identification of the species was later confirmed by Professor Kristofer Helgen, mammalogist and chief scientist and director of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI).
Some AI background to the monotremes of the Prototheria subclass, to which this rediscovered species belongs:
Tell me all about the monotremes and their place in the evolutionary history of mammals. Monotremes are a unique group of egg-laying mammals that belong to the subclass Prototheria. There are only five extant species of monotremes, and they are found exclusively in Australia and New Guinea. The two main genera of monotremes are the platypus (Ornithorhynchus) and echidnas (Tachyglossidae).
  1. Platypus:
    • The platypus is a small, aquatic mammal with a duck-bill, webbed feet, and a flat tail. It has dense, waterproof fur and is known for its ability to lay eggs, a characteristic it shares with all monotremes.
    • Male platypuses possess venomous spurs on their hind limbs, primarily used during competition with other males.
  2. Echidnas:
    • Echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters, are terrestrial mammals covered in spines or quills. There are several species of echidnas, with the short-beaked echidna and the long-beaked echidna being the most well-known.
    • Echidnas have a long, extensible tongue, which they use to capture ants and termites, their primary food source.
Evolutionary Significance:
Monotremes hold a significant place in the evolutionary history of mammals for several reasons:
  1. Egg-Laying:
    • Monotremes are the only group of mammals that lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young. This reproductive strategy is a primitive trait that links them to the reptilian ancestors of mammals.
    • The eggs have a leathery shell, similar to those of reptiles, in contrast to the hard-shelled eggs of birds.
  2. Transitional Features:
    • Monotremes exhibit a combination of reptilian and mammalian characteristics. For example, they lack nipples, and milk is secreted through mammary gland ducts and absorbed through the skin, forming patches that the young monotreme lap up.
    • The structure of their brains and reproductive systems also reflects a transitional state between reptiles and more advanced mammals.
  3. Early Divergence:
    • Monotremes represent one of the most primitive branches in the mammalian evolutionary tree. Their divergence from other mammals is estimated to have occurred around 250 million years ago.
  4. Conservation Significance:
    • Monotremes are considered living fossils because their characteristics have changed relatively little over millions of years. Studying them provides valuable insights into the early stages of mammalian evolution.
    • Given their unique reproductive and physiological features, the conservation of monotremes is essential for understanding the broader context of mammalian diversity.
In summary, monotremes are fascinating creatures that offer a glimpse into the evolutionary history of mammals. Their egg-laying reproduction, combination of primitive and advanced features, and early divergence from other mammals make them a crucial group for understanding the development of mammalian traits over time.
About Attenborough's long-beaked echidna:
  • Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, is not known to live outside the Cyclops Mountains and biologists still have many unanswered questions about its habitat and ecology.
  • Attenborough's long-beaked echidna is an EDGE species: a threatened species that has few close relatives on the evolutionary tree of life. They have evolved independently of other mammals for about 200 million years.
  • The echidna has cultural significance for the people of Yongsu Sapari, who have lived on the northern slopes of the Cyclops Mountains for eighteen generations. When there is a conflict within the community, rather than fighting, there is a tradition that one party goes up into the Cyclops to search for an echidna while the other party goes to the ocean to find a marlin. Both creatures were so difficult to find that it would often take decades or a whole generation to locate them, but, once found, the animals symbolized the end of the conflict and a return to harmonious relationships in the village.
  • The echidna has only been scientifically recorded once, when it was discovered by Pieter van Royen -- a Dutch botanist -- in 1961. Since then it has only been known from reports of sightings by the Yongsu Sapari community, and indirect signs during pre-expedition work in 2022. These signs, also observed during the expedition, included 'nose pokes,' holes in the ground left by echidnas after using their long, slightly curved snouts to probe for underground invertebrates.

In addition to rediscovering the honeybird and Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, and discovering the tree shrimp, the team also discovered blind spiders, a blind harvestman, and a whip scorpion, all new to science, in a previously unexplored cave system which was discovered accidentally when a team member fell through the moss-covered entrance.

The expedition and its findings are a tribute to the lengths scientists will go to to discover the truth about our planet and show us what we will lose if we destroy these delicate environments.

As the OU News release continues:
'A beautiful but dangerous land'

The Cyclops mountains as seen from the Pacific Ocean.
Credit: Expedition Cyclops.
Extremely challenging and, at times, life-threatening conditions were at the background of these discoveries. During one of the trips to the cave system, a sudden earthquake forced the team to evacuate. Dr Davranoglou broke his arm in two places, one member contracted malaria, and another had a leech attached to his eye for a day and a half before it was finally removed at a hospital. Throughout the expedition, members were beset by biting mosquitoes and ticks, and faced constant danger from venomous snakes and spiders. Making any progress through the jungle was a slow and exhausting process, with the team sometimes having to cut paths where no humans had ever been before.

Tropical rainforests are among the most important and most threatened terrestrial ecosystems. It is our duty to support our colleagues on the frontline through exchanging knowledge, skills, and equipment.

Dr Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou
Oxford University Museum of Natural History

‘Though some might describe the Cyclops as a “Green Hell”, I think the landscape is magical, at once enchanting and dangerous, like something out of a Tolkien book’ said Dr Kempton. ‘In this environment, the camaraderie between the expedition members was fantastic, with everyone helping to keep up morale. In the evening, we exchanged stories around the fire, all the while surrounded by the hoots and peeps of frogs.’
Clearly there is a lot for Creationists to ignore and pretend not to see here. In addition to the 'living fossil' in the form of a 'transitional' echidna, with its mosaic of reptilian and mammalian features, we have the tree shrimp, which is inexplicable as a piece of intelligent design, but exactly what we would expect of a mindless, natural process such as evolution by natural selection, then we have blind arachnids living in a dark cave where no designer in its right mind would dream of putting them, let alone designing eyes for them that don't work.

But as usual, self-centered creationists will have to ignore these natural wonders because, being the product of a mindless process proceeding without a plan, doesn't make them feel important enough. Instead, they ignore reality and make up childish fairy stories in which they are the central character and pretend their stories are a more accurate description of reality than anything science reveals.

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