The Australian Wonder Book of Knowledge - [Home]            
   

 

Overview

Haunts of The Platypus

General Description

The Platypus Burrow

Platypuses In Captivity

Pelt Hunters and the Platypus

       

 

The Platypus

 

   

WHEN the platypus was still a puzzle to savants of the Old World , a certain learned French-man declared that the duck-billed animal from the Antipodes was not a mammal because it laid eggs. Nor was it a bird or a reptile, and therefore it had to be placed in a class of its own.

Numerous other opinions were also expressed, and some people actually suggested that the amazing little furred creature with a duck's bill and webbed feet might be a clever fake. Artful Chinese produced mermaids by attaching fish-tails to the mummified bodies of monkeys, and these monstrosities were sold at high prices to gullible sailors returning from voyages to the East Indies. Perhaps the platypus was another Chinese creation!

It was not until almost a century after the first specimen reached England that the platypus was generally accepted as a genuine product of Nature; a paradoxical animal such as might be expected to exist in a land of queer creatures and strange plants.

Fortunately, we know the early history of the "duck-bill," or "water-mole," as it was called in 1797 by the first Europeans to observe it. From the banks of a lake near the Hawkesbury River , "an amphibious animal of the mole kind" had been frequently noticed rising to the surface of the water "blowing like a turtle." One or two were captured, and their dried skins sent to England . These were followed by several specimens preserved in spirits, which Everard Home, a noted anatomist, dissected. Home's scientific description of Ornithorhynchus appeared in print; but just before this, another scientist named George Shaw had described the wonder animal, with a quaint illustration, in the Naturalist's Miscellany. He called it Platypus anatinus. In 1799, a German anatomist named the "duck-bill " Ornithorhynchus paradoxus.

The name platypus was out of order; as a scientific title, having already been given to a genus of beetles; but it was retained as a popular name for the amazing little egg-laying mammal.

Early settlers learned from the natives that the "water-mole" laid eggs and had nesting burrows, but many years passed before authentic eggs of the mallagongan aboriginal name for the Ornithorhynchus — were obtained. In 1864, it was reported from . Wood's Point, Victoria , that a captive platypus had laid two eggs. But some naturalists remained unconvinced that egg-laying mammals really existed in Australia , or in any other part of the world. Controversy ceased only when eggs of both platypus and echidna were obtained in Queensland by an English zoologist.

It was in Queensland , too, in the 'eighties, that relics of an ancestor of Ornithorhynchus were found. These fossil bones do not indicate a giant form. but an animal smaller than our platypus, whose only known ancestor flourished .about five million years ago.

 

   
Wonder Book of Knowledge