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.
No animal caused an academic kerfuffle among 19th-century European scientists quite like the platypus.
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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.
For decades, part of the collection was stashed away in the Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology. But nobody realized it until recently.
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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.
Sure enough, he uncovered a small box of uncatalogued specimens that are suspected to be Caldwell’s.
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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.
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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.’”