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Brain and behaviour of living and extinct echidnas

DOI: 10.1016/j.zool.2014.05.002
  • Monotreme
  • Electroreception
  • Olfaction
  • Trigeminal Pathway
  • Encephalisation
  • Medicine


Abstract The Tachyglossidae (long- and short-beaked echidnas) are a family of monotremes, confined to Australia and New Guinea, that exhibit striking trigeminal, olfactory and cortical specialisations. Several species of long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus robusta, Zaglossus hacketti, Megalibgwilia ramsayi) were part of the large-bodied (10kg or more) fauna of Pleistocene Australasia, but only the diminutive (2–7kg) Tachyglossus aculeatus is widespread today on the Australian mainland. We used high-resolution CT scanning and other osteological techniques to determine whether the remarkable neurological specialisations of modern echidnas were also present in Pleistocene forms or have undergone modification as the Australian climate changed in the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene. All the living and extinct echidnas studied have a similar pattern of cortical gyrification that suggests comparable functional topography to the modern short-beaked form. Osteological features related to olfactory, trigeminal, auditory and vestibular specialisation (e.g., foramina and cribriform plate area, osseous labyrinth topography) are also similar in living and extinct species. Our findings indicate that despite differences in diet, habitat and body size, the suite of neurological specialisations in the Tachyglossidae has been remarkably constant: encephalisation, sensory anatomy and specialisation (olfactory, trigeminal, auditory and vestibular), hypoglossal nerve size and cortical topography have all been stable neurological features of the group for at least 300,000 years.

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