This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Here was a creature that looked as if Mother Nature had played an enormous joke. More than 200 years later, we still have much to learn about the biology and habits of this very special animal.
The enigmatic platypus
BY MARK KELLETT
S SPRING GAVE WAY to summer in 1797, an extraordinary animal was caught in a lake near the Hawkesbury River. The identity of the colonist who caught it has been lost to history, but somehow the creature found its way into the hands of deputy judge advocate, David Collins, who carefully described this “amphibious animal of the mole species” in his book, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales.
In size it was considerably larger than the land mole. The eyes were very small. The forelegs, which were shorter than the hind, were observed to be provided with four claws, and a membrane or web that spread considerably beyond them, while the feet of the hind legs were furnished, not only with this membrane or web, but with four long and sharp claws that projected as much beyond the web as the web projected beyond the claws of the fore feet.
The tail of this animal was thick, short and very fat; but the most extraordinary circumstance observed in its structure was its having, instead of the mouth of an animal, the upper and lower mandibles of a duck. By these it was enabled to supply itself with food, like that bird, in muddy places, or on the banks of the lakes in which its webbed feet enabled it to swim; while on shore its long and sharp claws were employed in burrowing; nature thus providing for it in its double or amphibious character. These little animals had been frequently noticed rising to the surface of the water, and blowing like the turtle.
In the spring of the following year, John Hunter, Governor the New South Wales colony, witnessed an Aborigine spearing one of these creatures in the same area. Intrigued, he had a number of the animals, dubbed ‘water moles’ by the colonists, trapped and sent their preserved skins to prominent naturalists and
anatomists. These specimens were eventually examined by such luminaries as Thomas Bewick, writer of the General History of Quadrupeds, George Shaw, Keeper of the Department of Natural History of the British Museum, Johann Blumenbach of the University of Göttingen and the British anatomist, Everard Home. As a result, around the turn of the century, a number of quite independent descriptions of the animal were made. Shaw’s description of this surprising creature in the 1799 edition of Naturalist’s Miscellany, long held to be the first published, was typical of these early works. His suspicions were justifiably raised by the water mole skin. Unscrupulous men had been humbugging naive naturalists with ‘Jenny Hanivers’, animals mutilated and blended into fantastic shapes, for centuries. Certainly he was not going to be fooled by some colonial hoax! Even in his description, Shaw wrote: Australian Heritage 77
The Naturalist’s Miscellany – Platypus Anatinus, June 1799, published by F P Nodder, 1813 or 1814, 591/13 SET (v.10), Mitchell Library (Printed Books Collection). F P Nodder’s picture of a platypus skin from Shaw’s description. It took a great deal to persuade Shaw that the creature was not a fake.
“...nor is it without the most minute and rigid examination that we can persuade ourselves of its being the real beak or snout of a quadruped”. To this day, the skin held by the British Natural History Museum bears the marks around the bill where Shaw probed about looking for hidden stitches. A consequence of the various descriptions of the animal was confusion about its name. Shaw gave it the scientific name Platypus anatinus (meaning flat-footed and duck-like) – but the name ‘platypus’ had already been used for a genus of beetle. In his natural history miscellany Abbildungen, Blumenbach named the animal Ornithorhynchus paradoxus (meaning bird-billed and paradoxical). Eventually the compromise name of Ornithorhynchus anatinus was accepted but, for the layman, platypus it would remain. In 1802, a male and female platypus preserved in spirits were sent to England by Governor Philip Gidley King.
The recent acquisition by the National Library of Australia of a German children’s encyclopaedia by J F Bertuch entitled Bilderbuch fur Kinder (Weimar: 1798–1830) raises some interesting questions about who was the first to classify and describe the platypus. The early volumes of the 8-volume encyclopaedia were published In 1798, the year before Shaw published his Natural Miscellany, and two years before the German naturalist Blumenbach published his description of “Das Schnabelthier (Ornithorhynchus paradoxus)”. Volume 3 included two illustrations and a description of the platypus using Blumenbach’s name Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. How did the author, J F Bertuch, come by these illustrations and the name? The National Library of Australia surmises that Blumenbach may have classified the platypus much earlier than his published account indicates, and made his work available to Bertuch for use in the Bilderbuch. This, of course, raises the question of whether Bertuch’s (and Blumenbach’s) work predates that of Shaw. The Bilderbuch also includes dozens of descriptions of Australian flora and fauna such as the dugong, the koala, Tasmanian tiger and devil, cockatoos, parrots, snakes, lizards, shells and ferns as well as views of Hobart and Sydney towns and portraits of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Platypuses swim with their eyes, nostrils and ears firmly shut. Naturalists and zoologists were curious as to how they might find their way about and catch their prey.
They were given to Home to examine; not only did he confirm that the toothless bill was an integral part of the animal, but he deduced that it was a very important one as well. The size of the nerves linking bill to brain suggested that “...the sensibility of the different parts of the bill is very great, and therefore answers to the purpose of a hand, and is capable of nice determination in its feeling”. This discovery, however, was overshadowed by findings at the other end of the animal. The platypus’ furry body suggested it was a mammal. At the time all known mammals had completely separate digestive tracts and reproductive systems and, in females, two or more mammary glands to provide their young with milk. The pickled platypus appeared to have no mammary glands and its reproductive and digestive tracts were fused into a cloaca – a structure found in birds and reptiles! Dissection of other pickled specimens in 1824 by the German anatomist, Johann Meckel, corrected one of these initial reports. The platypus did have rudimentary mammary glands, but since they had no nipples they were difficult to discern. However Geoffroy St Hilaire, professor of quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and fish at the Paris Museum of
Natural History and veteran of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, argued that the lack of nipple combined with the babies’ horny beak would make it
impossible for the platypus to suckle its young, and suggested that the glands Meckel had found served some other purpose.
This engraving by T Powell, made from a drawing by Governor Hunter, was published in 1802 in the diary format book, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, by deputy judge advocate Collins. The description is dated 1797, making it the first written description of the animal. The caption reads: “AN AMPHIBIOUS ANIMAL of the MOLE KIND which Inhabits the Banks of the fresh water lagoons in New South Wales – its fore feet are evidently their principal assistance in Swimming & their hind feet having the Claws extending beyond the Web’d part are useful in burrowing.” State Library of Victoria, Image Number: pb000356.
Australian Heritage 79
Platypuses use sensitive ducts on the flap of skin around the bill (a structure called the shield) to pick up electrical impulses given off by the muscles of moving prey.
Both the bird-like reproductive tract of the platypus and reports from New South Wales suggested that that it might lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young. This suggestion
caused a scientific uproar, and everyone seemed to have a position on the issue. Meckel argued that the platypus was a mammal, and therefore it must give birth to live young. Saint-
When not swimming, platypuses spend their time in burrows. Normally they live in short residential burrows that open just above the water level. Nesting burrows, constructed by female platypuses about to lay eggs, are much longer and end in a chamber in which the platypus family lives until the babies are weaned. The mother plugs the nesting burrow with earth to keep out predators.
Hilaire and Blumenbach followed the suggestions of anatomy and colonists, maintaining that the platypus laid eggs. Home and the prominent British anatomist, Richard Owen, took a compromise position of eggs being produced that hatched within the platypus’ body. It is not surprising that controversy dominated the early years of platypus research. The European naturalists were attempting to understand a creature of which they had only a few poorly preserved specimens and incomplete or exaggerated reports of its behaviour. It would be difficult enough to study a fairly familiar animal in this manner, let alone one as weird as the platypus. With the Napoleonic wars still in progress, the national and personal rivalries between the leading naturalists and anatomists of the time made controversy inevitable. When naturalists travelled to Australia to study the living platypus first-hand, some misconceptions about it were soon resolved. The debate over the platypus suckling its young was rapidly cleared up. Closer examination of pickled
80 Australian Heritage
specimens by Meckel and personal observations by Lieutenant Lauderdale Maule showed that the glands produced milk. The supposed inability of the ‘horny-billed’ platypus to suckle its young was disproved by examination of the living animal. When Charles Darwin examined a platypus during his visit to Australia in 1836, he observed that “the stuffed specimens do not at all give a good idea of the recent appearance of its head and beak, the latter becoming hard and contracted”. The bill had become tough as a result of the preservation process; in life, the bill is rubbery and pliable – baby platypuses are quite capable of lapping up their mother’s milk, as Owen found when examining the contents of their stomachs. It took rather longer to determine how platypuses enter the world. What an Australian naturalist, Harry Burrell, later described as “the sad story of the eggs” took almost a century in the telling. Saint-Hilaire had announced the finding of platypus eggs in 1829, but later found that they were turtle eggs. Two years later, Maule reported finding soft, pliable eggshells in a platypus burrow. However, this finding was crushed by the reports of the English naturalist, George Bennett. Having dug up dozens of burrows in the region around Sydney during the 1830s, Bennett had found baby platypuses at all states of development – but no eggs! More than thirty years later, a colleague of Owen was surprised to find that a platypus put in a box the previous evening had laid two “white, soft and compressible” eggs. Owen, reluctant to abandon his pet theory of platypus eggs hatching internally, dismissed the finding as an “abortion due to fear”. On the 12th August 1884, the Scottish embryologist William Caldwell, by “lucky chance”, shot a platypus midway between laying one egg and another, when visiting the Burnett River, Queensland. Seventeen days later, a telegram from him arrived at the meeting of the
A platypus surfaces to breathe (right). The fore feet provide most of the propulsion when swimming, while the hind feet act as rudders.
EVOLUTION OF THE PLATYPUS
Though the platypus’ combination of reptilian and mammalian features led many scientists to believe it to be a creature of great antiquity, tracing its evolution was difficult. Most mammal fossils are of teeth, and the platypus has none. However, in 1888 it was discovered that platypus have milk teeth when they hatch, which are shed and replaced by horny grinding plates as they grow up. Since these milk teeth have a distinctive structure, fossils of platypus ancestors could be easily identified. Yet until the 1970s no platypus fossils were found. Since then, fossils of several ancient species of platypus have been discovered, including the 110 million-year-old opalised jaw of Steropodon galmani from Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, the 60 million-year-old Monotrematum sudamericanum from Argentina, the 20 million-year-old Obduradon insignis from South Australia and the complete skull of the 15 millionyear-old Obduradon dicksoni from Riversleigh, Queensland. Curiously, though these fossils are only a little like the modern platypus, they are very similar to one another, even though they come from two continents and a time-span of about 100 million years. These findings suggest that the ancestral platypuses were probably found throughout the supercontinent of Gondwana. They were never particularly diverse, and passed through this immense span of time with limited evolutionary change. Gradually, its range contracted until it was found only in Australia. In the last 15 million years platypuses became smaller and increasingly specialised. Since any specialised animal is vulnerable to changes in habitat, examination of the platypus’ evolutionary history suggests that it may require careful conservation.
British Association for the Advancement of Science in Montreal reading “Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic”. In other words, platypuses and their close relatives, echidnas, laid eggs that hatched outside the parent’s body, and these eggs had characteristics that made them similar to those of reptiles. We now know that, after digging a burrow, female platypuses lay between one and three eggs with a whitish, pliable shell. Since the incubation time for the eggs is between a week and a fortnight, it is not surprising that Bennett had missed them. In the same year, the English biologist, Edward Poulton, was examining the structure of the bill. He found that its surface was covered with a network of columnshaped cells that linked to nerve fibres. Suggesting that pressure would depress the cells and stimulate the nerve cell, he called them ‘push rods’. The zoologist John Gould had
noted in the 1840s that platypuses ate “…river insects, very small shellfish &c., comminuted and mingled with mud or gravel: this latter might be required to aid digestion, as I have never observed food unmingled with it”. Home’s early observation of large nerves linking bill to brain, together with Poulton’s ‘push rods’ on the platypus’ bill and Gould’s observation of their apparently unselective diet suggested that platypuses found food by probing about with their bills, identifying prey by touch. When Burrell kept platypuses in an early platypusary during the 1920s, he noted that they hunted with their eyes, ears and nostrils tightly shut. Yet despite this, they were able to detect and catch their live food far more quickly than might be expected if they were hunting by touch alone. This uncanny accuracy led him to suspect platypuses used a ‘sixth sense’ when hunting.
Nearly a century later, both suggestions were found to be true. In 1977, biologists Ros Bohringer and Mark Rowe found that most of the platypus’ brain is dedicated to interpreting information from the bill and that push rods are at their densest on the underside of the lower jaw. Eight years later, a collaboration of German and Australian scientists discovered that the platypus could detect electrical fields. When a piece of shrimp tail, a flat battery and live battery were hidden in its pond, a platypus always quickly found the live battery. This capacity to track electrical fields was traced by Australian physiologist, Ewe Proske, to sensory ducts on the flap of skin above the platypus bill. Though sharks and some other aquatic creatures were already known to have such an electric sense, the platypus was the first mammal found to possess it.
Platypuses searching for food. Female platypuses can eat about half their body weight of invertebrates each day while caring for young.
With these findings, we now have a picture of how platypuses might hunt. They are first attracted to electric fields given off by the muscle contractions of insects or crustaceans. It is possible that the platypus may also be able to use its electrical sense to navigate among the rocks and rotting wood of its freshwater home. As the platypus closes, the touch receptors on its bill allow it to locate its prey precisely and gobble it up. The bizarre anatomy of the platypus at first astounded and confused European naturalists and anatomists. Its combination of reptilian and mammalian features
initially turned the wonder of many to contempt – such a clumsy creature could only be a laughable evolutionary relic! However, as time passed, its unusual features attracted the interest of competent scientists whose studies, especially those in the last thirty years, have revealed it to be a highly specialised creature, with unique adaptations of its ancient body plan establishing it as a most effective burrowing aquatic insectivore.
Furred Animals of Australia by Ellis Troughton, 1946, Angus & Robertson. Paradoxical Platypus – Hobnobbing with Duckbills by David Fleay, 1981, Jacaranda Press. Platypus by Ann Moyal, 2001, Allen & Unwin. Riversleigh by Michael Archer, Suzanne J. Hand and Henk Godthelp, 1991, Reed Books. To be a Platypus, an essay in Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould, 1991, Penguin. Willy Ley’s Exotic Zoology, 1987, Bonanza Books. ◆
Dr Mark Kellett is a biologist and freelance science writer.
THE STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL
Early studies of the platypus, like those by Bennett and Caldwell, were exceptionally destructive and were only possible because it was not a protected species. John Gould was appalled by the way the animal was treated, noting that “…it is in fact often killed from mere wantonness, or at most for no more useful purpose than to make slippers of its skin”. By the 1840s a thriving industry had grown around making rugs, hats and slippers from their beautifully soft and velvety pelts. Platypuses were also unintentionally caught and drowned in fish traps and nets. Later, introduced animals intruded on the platypus as dogs snatched unwary animals and rabbits displaced them from their burrows. By the time Caldwell was attempting his studies, platypuses were rare around Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and had been driven from South Australia altogether. It was also suggested that they were becoming scarce in other parts of their range. In response to this, the Australian government declared the platypus a protected species in 1912, and banned the trade in platypus furs. Even so, it was believed that the platypus would need assistance in recovering their old numbers. The problem was how to provide the necessary help. Although platypuses had been part of zoo collections since 1910, they had proved to be poor exhibits, being terrified of their new surroundings and usually perishing from stress after a few months at most. When zoologist David Fleay began working with platypuses at the Royal Melbourne Zoo he developed a fascination for them that would endure for the rest of his life. When he was appointed director of Healesville Sanctuary in 1937, platypuses were among the species that he highlighted in the collection. The platypusary was an extremely popular drawcard, with crowds gathering to watch the daily feeding display. Fleay’s greatest success came in late 1943, when a pair in his collection named Jack and Jill courted and mated. When Jill disappeared into her burrow and had still not emerged in early 1944, Fleay became concerned about his charge and carefully dug up the burrow. To his delight he found a ridiculously fat baby. Corrie, as she was later named, was the first platypus to be reared in captivity. The accomplishment was the subject of his popular book We Breed the Platypus published later that year. However, though he continued working with platypuses for years afterwards Fleay was unable to repeat his success in rearing captively bred platypuses to maturity. The difficulties in breeding platypuses suggested that another approach was needed and the Flora and Fauna Board of South Australia decided to attempt to establish platypuses on Kangaroo Island, which was still free of foxes and rabbits. Between 1928 and 1946, around 15 platypuses were taken to the Flinders Chase National Park at the western end of the island and they thrived. Their descendants still survive there today. In 1988, six platypuses were taken from Kangaroo Island to Warrawong Sanctuary, then run by Earth Sanctuaries Ltd under John Wamsley. Warrawong’s platypuses were reared in large ponds, and by the time Wamsley retired in 2005, its platypus population had increased to more than 20. At about the same time, improvements in platypus husbandry techniques enabled zoos finally to repeat Fleay’s success: Healesville Sanctuary hatched twins in 1998 and a single baby in 2000, while Taronga Zoo hatched twins in late 2003 and another two in 2005. After almost a century of protection by law, the platypus seems to be recovering in numbers. However, this specialised creature is still vulnerable to disturbance of its habitat, a fact reinforced by examination of its fossil record. If it is to survive, the platypus will still need careful conservation. Australian Heritage 83