150-year-old platypus and echidna specimens that proved some mammals lay eggs

Jars of tiny specimens of platypuses and echidnas, collected in the late 1800s by scientist William Caldwell, were discovered in the vaults of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

At the time of their collection, these specimens were the key to proving that some mammals laid eggs, a fact that changed the course of scientific thought and supported the theory of evolution.

This unique collection has not been cataloged by the museum, so the museum staff did not know of its existence until recently. The exciting discovery was made when Jack Ashby, deputy director of the museum, was working on a new book about Australian mammals.

“It’s one thing to read 19and centuries of announcements that platypuses and echidnas lay eggs. But to have physical samples here that bring us one step closer to a discovery made nearly 150 years ago is amazing,” Ashby said.

He added: “I knew from experience that there is no collection of natural history on Earth that contains a complete catalog of everything in it, and I suspected that Caldwell’s specimens should indeed be here … He was right: three months after as Ashby asked collections manager Matthew Lowe to keep an eye on him, a small box of specimens was found in the museum with a note that they belonged to Caldwell. Ashby’s investigation confirmed that this was indeed the case.

Until Europeans first encountered platypuses and echidnas in the 1790s, all mammals were assumed to give birth to live young. The question of whether some mammals lay eggs was then one of the biggest questions of the 19th century.and zoology of the century and was hotly debated in scientific circles. The recently discovered collection of small jugs is a huge scientific work, which allowed to unravel this mystery.

“In the 19th century, many conservative scientists didn’t want to believe in the existence of egg-laying mammals because that would support the theory of evolution — the idea that one group of animals could evolve into another,” Ashby said. . .

He added: “Lizards and frogs lay eggs, which is why a lot of people rejected the idea of ​​egg-laying mammals – I think they thought it was demeaning to be associated with animals that they considered ‘lower forms of life’. »

The recently discovered collection includes echidnas, platypuses and marsupials at various stages of their lives, from fertilized egg to adolescence. Caldwell was the first to complete collections of all life stages of these species, although not all specimens have been found in the museum.

For 85 years, European naturalists tried to find evidence that platypuses and echidnas lay eggs, including by interviewing Australian aborigines, but any results they sent home were ignored or discarded.

William Caldwell was sent to Australia in 1883 – with substantial financial support from the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the British government – to solve a long-standing mystery.

Through extensive research, Caldwell collected some 1,400 specimens with the help of a large group of Australian Aboriginals. In 1884, the team finally found a echidna with an egg in its pouch and a platypus with an egg in its nest, with another one about to lay.

This was the final proof that Caldwell was looking for, and the news spread around the world. The colonial scientific establishment was apparently only ready to accept this result now that it had been confirmed by “one of them”.

Ashby says that over the past two centuries, scientists have constantly belittled Australian mammals, portraying them as strange and inferior. He believes that this language continues to influence how we describe them today and undermine conservation efforts.

“Platypuses and echidnas are not strange, primitive animals, as they are portrayed in many historical accounts – they evolved just like everything else. It’s just that they never stopped laying eggs,” he said, adding, “I think they’re absolutely amazing and definitely worth checking out.” »

Feathered echidnas are the most common mammals in Australia. They cover the entire continent and have adapted to live in any climate, from snow-capped mountains to the driest deserts.

The platypus is one of the few mammals that can sense electricity, and one of the few mammals that produce venom. With a beaver-like tail, a flat beak, and webbed feet like a duck, when the first specimens were brought to Europe, people thought they were forgeries sewn together.

Platypuses and echidnas have a unique combination of traits that 19th-century scientists believed should exist individually only in mammals, reptiles, or birds. This has placed them at the center of the evolutionary debate.

Ashby’s new book Platypus Matters: The Unusual History of Australian Mammalspublished in the UK on 12 May 2022 by Harper Collins.

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