You know the type: rule-breaker, defies categorization, total weirdo, but also fun at a pool party. I speak, of course, about the duck-billed platypus. Newly discovered specimens of small platypus and echidnas in jars, collected in the late 1800s by the scientist William Caldwell, prove that these magnificent, deeply strange creatures have been confounding scientists and their pesky classification schemes for hundreds of years.
The specimens, discovered in the stores of Cambridge’s University Museum of Zoology earlier this month, are particularly significant because they were once used to demonstrate that some mammals laid eggs — previously a highly speculative theory challenging ideas of egg-laying as a strictly non-mammalian form of reproduction. This discovery was deeply influential to scientific thinking of the day, and provided support for the theory of evolution.
“It’s one thing to read the 19th-century announcements that platypuses and echidnas actually lay eggs. But to have the physical specimens here, tying us back to that discovery almost 150 years ago, is pretty amazing,” Jack Ashby, assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology, told Phys.org. The zoologist discovered the specimens in the course of his research on Australian mammals.
“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,” Ashby added.
This is, of course, highly relatable — who hasn’t misplaced their baby echidna specimens, only to find them on top of the washing machine? In the case at Cambridge, Collections Manager Matthew Lowe came across a small box holding the samples from Caldwell’s 1883 expedition to Australia that had gotten lost in the mix.
During his mission, Caldwell first retrieved actual mammal-laid eggs, thus achieving what nearly 100 years of European naturalism had failed to do since discovering the platypus and echidna in the 1790s. He collected some 1,400 specimens with the help of Indigenous Australians before finding an echidna with an egg in her pouch and a platypus with one egg in her nest and another just about to be laid. It was a bad day for those particular mammals, but a great day for science.
This important collection holds a discovery that helped solidify the theory of evolution in the minds of the European scientific community. But one might equally make the case for the finding as a sort of nature’s April Fools Day joke: The venom-shooting, beaver-tailed, egg-laying, electricity-sensing duck-billed platypus is as much an argument for God being very, very tired at the end of Creation.