Seeing is believing

Look: Missing 19th century platypus and echidna specimens discovered in museum storage

150 years ago, these mammal specimens ignited a fierce evolutionary debate. A British museum just re-discovered them.

Jacqueline Garget

No animal caused an academic kerfuffle among 19th-century European scientists quite like the platypus.

Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images News/Getty Images

British colonists living in New South Wales, Australia, sent specimens of the creature back to their homeland.

It looked like a hodgepodge of conflicting features to European naturalists; its duck-like beak, beaver-like tail, webbed feet, and fur puzzled them. Some even thought it was fake.

Was the platypus a mammal, amphibian, bird, or something else?

The question prompted naturalists like William Hay Caldwell to explore how platypuses reproduced — either by live birth or laying eggs.

Shutterstock

In 1833, Caldwell went to Australia in search of platypus and echidna specimens, and collected nearly 1,400 with help from a group of Aboriginal Australians.

University of Cambridge

For decades, part of the collection was stashed away in the Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology. But nobody realized it until recently.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images

Jacqueline Garget

Jack Ashby, the museum’s assistant director, was researching a book on Australian mammals and had a hunch that the specimens might be hidden right under his nose.

“I knew from experience that there isn’t a natural history collection on Earth that actually has a comprehensive catalog of everything in it, and I suspected that Caldwell’s specimens really ought to be here.”

Jack Ashby, in a statement.

Jacqueline Garget

Jacqueline Garget

Sure enough, he uncovered a small box of uncatalogued specimens that are suspected to be Caldwell’s.

This baby echidna, preserved in the 1800s, represents just one of many life stages captured in Caldwell’s specimens.

Jacqueline Garget

Finding the eggs of echidnas (shown here) and platypuses upended 19th-century ideas of what it meant to be a mammal.

University of Cambridge

Kristian Bell/Moment/Getty Images

Not only did the findings in this collection prove to European scientists that some mammals lay eggs, but they also bolstered the theory of evolution at a time when many weren’t keen on the idea.

duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

The idea that one group of animals could change into another was something that many conservative scientists at the time didn’t want to believe, Ashby said in a statement.

“Lizards and frogs lay eggs, so the idea of a mammal laying eggs was dismissed by many people — I think they felt it was degrading to be related to animals that they considered ‘lower life forms.’”

Ashby, in a statement.

Shutterstock