Have compass, will volunteer to track rare animals

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The beeps on the radio receiver were coming in loud and clear. Something was very close.

I turned down the volume, stood still, and patiently scanned the scrub landscape. Soon the scuffling of dry leaves close to my feet gave the game away. "Jett" was on the prowl, foraging under logs and inside bark for insects. Unlike his shy and reclusive relatives, he showed no fear of meeting a human.

Jett is an echidna (e-kid-nuh), a prickly member of the world's oldest surviving group of mammals. His ancestors have been digging and foraging for more than 120 million years – since the time when dinosaurs stomped the earth.

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I had come all the way from Britain to Australia – flying in a small prop plane from Adelaide on the mainland to Kangaroo Island – for this kind of encounter. Five other volunteers joined me, hailing from Britain, America, and Australia.

Since 1991, the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre here has been researching the complicated and fascinating life cycles of echidnas and of goannas, the large lizards that are their only natural predators. The project was established by Peggy Rismuller – recognized as the authority on echidnas, creatures that, as she says, "look funny, walk funny, and are not an easy animal to study."

Following them from egg to adulthood is no easy task, considering they can live for up to 50 years. Twenty echidnas and 13 goannas were fitted with radio transmitters during my visit, making it possible to track them.

The lesson of a lifetime

The research is partly funded by Earthwatch, which was founded in Boston in 1971. The worldwide charity promotes conservation by involving volunteers in more than 140 field research ventures around the globe.

Volunteers pay for their own board and lodgings while experiencing a lesson of a lifetime. To cover those expenses for my trip to Kangaroo Island (about $1,900 plus airfare), I was given an Earthwatch Millennium Award, financed by the UK Millennium Commission and by Royal and StarAlliance Insurance.

In Britain, 400 Millennium awards have been granted in the past two years to people age 50 or over. The program enables people like me – who are fascinated by the environment but have no experience – to get a two-week, hands-on education of the nature and culture of the country.

I learned how to live in the bush with only solar-powered energy and little water, and how to radio-track, map, observe, and report. In return, volunteers are helping scientists with their research. We are also expected to use our new skills and information to set up a local conservation project in our community. Mine will involve monitoring the interplay of sunlight and acid-loving trees on pond growth and water creatures.

Kangaroo Island is home to more than 4,000 humans and a wealth of wildlife. It is a microcosm of nature, never having been colonized by rabbits and foxes, which have wiped out so many of the mainland's creatures. The research center, a 45-minute, rutty drive from the airstrip, is completely self-supporting, with solar-powered equipment and gathered rainwater.

Set in deep brush, the wildlife is a veritable paradise – kangaroos at the door to greet you, possums sleeping in the tent by day and returning noisily home in the early morning. The lagoon is home to frolicking dolphins, and at night, with no light pollution, the sky sparkles like a diamond necklace.

Lessons in map-reading

On arrival, we were given our first lessons in tracking and map-reading, and were outfitted with a compass, radio equipment to monitor the echidnas, and notebooks for recording every detail of the creatures we encountered.

I knew nothing about either echidnas or goannas before setting off for Australia, but I was soon smitten by both.

Covered in prickly spines, the echidna is far from cuddly, but he's certainly cute. His protruding pointed skull houses a long sticky tongue, while five elongated sharp nails on his padded feet are perfectly shaped for digging.

Echidnas and the better-known biological anomaly, the platypus, are the only egg-laying mammals. Found from alpine to desert regions, even on the beach, the echidna is a master of camouflage, able to dig itself into the earth in seconds when alarmed. Despite being considered Australia's most widely distributed native mammal, echidnas are rarely seen and today are a protected species.

Being gentle creatures, they are easy prey for the many feral cats that inhabit Kangaroo Island; goannas take 15 percent of the young before they grow spines.

Unlike the early naturalists who killed their specimens in order to study them, Dr. Rismuller treats all her case studies with the utmost gentleness. As a result, she has made some remarkable discoveries together with Mike McKelvey, the manager of the center, who has taken never-before-seen photographs of echidna activity.

These include scenes of a "train" of up to 11 normally solitary males following a female around at breeding season, and shots of a female laying her one dime-sized egg (she breeds only once every three to five years). There are also shots of the egg tucked in her pouch and its moment of hatching into a small "puggle," as the baby is known.

The research on the echidna's remarkable survival through the millenniums and many climate changes – and its ability to lower its body temperature and metabolism, thus saving energy – is aiding scientists concerned with global warming and informing them about sustainability. Jett may be just foraging, but his activity is teaching us a lot about the world we live in.

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