An Animal Designed by Committee ; When First Found, the Platypus Didn't Fit Any Classification

By Cook, Jonathan | The Christian Science Monitor, August 23, 2001 | Go to article overview
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An Animal Designed by Committee ; When First Found, the Platypus Didn't Fit Any Classification


Cook, Jonathan, The Christian Science Monitor


In 1799, the first platypus specimen arrived in England from its faraway penal colony of Australia. The odd creature fit none of the accepted categories through which European scientists had been classifying nature since the Enlightenment. With its webbed feet, duck-like bill, and thick fur, it was neither fish nor fowl - yet not clearly a mammal, either. Questions about its method of reproduction - whether the young were born live or hatched from eggs - would persist for nearly a century.

"No animal, indeed, was to rub more strenuously up against the prevailing taxonomic categories than the paradoxical platypus," Ann Moyal writes in this small, engaging book. In recounting the story of how the platypus was studied and eventually classified, Moyal, an Australian historian of science, explains that it became entangled in broader debates over taxonomy and evolution among the wise men of European science.

Eminent 19th-century scientists like Richard Owen and Geoffroy St-Hilaire tried to shoehorn the platypus into their grand theories, but with mixed success. Even Charles Darwin was fascinated by the little animal, which seemed to support his findings on evolutionary fitness and speciation. But researchers conducting extensive fieldwork in Australia would eventually come up with the real goods, uncovering the reproductive mysteries of this reclusive creature.

Though a living link to the reptilian ancestry of modern mammals, the platypus is no anachronism, concludes Moyal.

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