Discovery and Naming

History Of Discovery and Naming

According to Aboriginal Dreamtime legend, the first platypus was born after an attractive young female duck mated with a lonely and persuasive water-rat. The duck's offspring had their mother's bill and webbed feet and their father's legs and handsome brown fur.

Early written records suggest that indigenous people were aware that the platypus was both egg-laying and venomous – facts that were only confirmed by European scientists after many decades of study. Traditional names for the species included "mallangong" and "tambreet" in New South Wales. Among the Wurundjeri people (who occupied much of Victoria) the name for the platypus was “dulaiwarrung”. Platypuses were hunted for food in the water using long spears, but the meat appears not to have been highly prized.

After the British colony in Australia was founded in 1788, the strange appearance of the platypus soon fascinated the new arrivals. Early colonists called the platypus a "water mole" or a “duckbill”.

The platypus was first scientifically described by Dr George Shaw in Britain in 1799. His initial reaction to the first specimen was that it was an elaborate hoax. It was not uncommon at the time for exotic forgeries (such as “mermaids” made by joining the body of a monkey to that of a fish) to be brought back to Europe from far-flung parts of the world. Shaw was so convinced that the platypus specimen had been fabricated that he took a pair of scissors to the pelt, expecting to find stitches attaching the bill to the skin.

Dr Shaw named the species Platypus anatinus from Greek and Latin words respectively meaning "flat-footed” and “duck-like". A German scientist named Blumenbach independently proposed a different scientific name in the following year, Ornithorhynchus paradoxus, with the first word meaning "bird-like snout" and the second meaning “puzzling”.

It then transpired that the term Platypus had previously been used in 1793 to name a group of beetles. Accordingly, a different scientific name had to be formulated. This was achieved by combining the names suggested by Shaw and Blumenbach to produce Ornithorhynchus anatinus, which remains the official designation of the species today.

In the meantime, the abandoned scientific name "platypus" became the accepted common name for the species.

Given that the word “platypus” is derived from Greek, its plural form should (strictly speaking) be “platypodes” and definitely not platypi (which would be valid only if “platypus” were derived from Latin). However, given that “platypus” has now entered the English language as the common name for the species, the accepted plural is either “platypuses” or “platypus”. (Note: for the sake of simplicity, “platypus” will be used as both singular and plural forms throughout this document.)

Cats raise kittens; lions raise cubs. In contrast, there is no well established term in the English language for a juvenile platypus. This presumably reflects fact that when a young platypus first emerges from its natal burrow it basically looks like a small adult. As juveniles are not normally seen by people at an earlier stage of development, there has never been a need to adopt a special term for a baby platypus. It has been suggested by staff working at Taronga Zoo in Sydney that “puggle” might be used. This word reputedly has had a reasonably long history of use to denote a baby echidna. However, as young platypus and echidnas look very different once they begin to grow up, the use of this term to denote a platypus is considered inappropriate by biologists who work with the species in the wild.

By the same token, there is no collective noun - equivalent to a school of fish or herd of cattle - which applies to the platypus. Platypus are fundamentally solitary in their habits, though more than one individual can sometimes be seen feeding at a given spot. Accordingly, there has never been a need to refer to these animals as a social unit.

Further reading:

Burrell, H. (1927). The Platypus. (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, reprinted in 1974 by Rigby: Adelaide).
Moyal, A. (2001). Platypus - The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World. (Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW).

Related Species and Evolution

Just five modern species of monotreme (or egg-laying mammal) have been described:
The platypus lives in Australia, long-beaked echidnas are found in New Guinea, and short-beaked echidnas occur in both Australia and New Guinea.

Based mainly on fossil remains found at Lightning Ridge (in New South Wales) and Dinosaur Cove and Flat Rocks (in Victoria), monotremes appear to have been a fairly diverse and important component of the Australian mammal fauna in the early Cretaceous period (roughly 110 million years ago). Living alongside these early monotremes were dinosaurs, turtles, lungfish and the now extinct ausktribosphenid mammals. These fossils date from a time when Australia was located far south of its current position and was joined to Antarctica as part of eastern Gondwana.

The only monotreme fossils found to date outside Australia belong to Monotrematum suderamericanum , described from teeth found in Patagonia (southern Argentina) that have been dated to about 62 million years ago. It is presumed that this discovery reflects the fact that monotremes dispersed to other parts of Gondwana after evolving in Australia.

The earliest known monotreme which unequivocally resembled what we think of as a platypus (based on finding a nearly complete, platypus-like bill) has been named Obdurodon dicksoni and dates from approximately 15-20 million years ago. O. dicksoni was a bit bigger than the modern platypus and had a larger bill and more powerful jaw muscles relative to the size of its head. In contrast to the current living form, adults also appear to have retained true teeth in the form of relatively thin-enamelled, six-rooted molars. The earliest known remains of the living species have been dated to around 100,000 years ago.

Investigating the evolutionary relationship between echidnas and the platypus has been hampered by the fact that the earliest known echidna fossils are only about 13 million years old. Based on patterns of genetic divergence, it has been hypothesized that the two groups began evolving independently as recently as 19-48 million years ago. Ironically, one of the most “primitive” physical features of monotremes – the typically reptilian design of the bones in the shoulder region – may explain why both the platypus and echidnas have survived so well. Although their limbs extend out from the body in a nearly horizontal plane and are primarily limited to rotational movements, the structure of their shoulder girdle also provides exceptional strength and ability when swimming (platypus) or digging (echidnas).

Further reading:

Flannery, T.F. and Groves, C.P. (1998). A revision of the genus Zaglossus (Monotremata, Tachyglossidae), with description of new species and subspecies. Mammalia 62: 367-396.
Musser, A.M. (1998). Evolution, biogeography and palaeoecology of the Ornithorhynchidae. Australian Mammalogy 20: 147-162.
Phillips, M.J., Bennett, T.H. and Lee, M.S.Y. (2009). Molecules, morphology, and ecology indicate a recent, amphibious ancestry for echidnas. PNAS Early Edition.

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