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Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Introduction to the egg-laying mammals

(Augee et al. 2006)

  • Only five living/extant species of egg-laying mammals (“monotremes”)
  • Similarities to other mammals (marsupials and placental mammals)
    • Have fur
    • Generate body heat; able to regulate body temperature
    • Females produce milk to nourish young
  • Differences from other mammals
    • Bodies are stocky; no discernible neck
    • Body temperature lower (32oC) than placental or marsupial mammals (37oC).
    • Skeletal structure
      • Some reptile-like traits
        • Limbs held horizontal to body
      • Hind feet rotate outwards
      • Snout formed by elongated nasal bones and jaw bones
    • Snout has mechanoreceptors and electroreceptors
    • No teeth—have mouth pads made of keratin
    • Little development of outer ear (“pinna”)
    • Young hatch from eggs
      • Extended period of early growth and physical development
    • Mothers lack nipples
    • Spur on hind ankle is connected to a gland in the thigh
      • Venomous in platypus (adult males only)

Taxonomy

  • First scientific descriptions
    • Independently described by George Shaw (as Platypus anatinus, 1799) and J.F. Blumenbach (as Ornithorhynchus paradoxus, 1800) (Grant 2015)
      • Genus Platypus already assigned to a genus of beetles; Ornithorhynchus accepted
        • “Platypus” persisted as a common name
  • The platypus caused much taxonomic debate in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s (Ritvo 1997; Hobbins 2015)
  • Recognized as one species, Ornithorhynchus anatinus (as of July 2018) (Jackson and Groves 2015; ITIS 2018)
    • Genetic evidence may warrant division into subspecies (Grant 2015; Jackson and Groves 2015)
  • Historically, four subspecies proposed (Grant 2015)
    • Based on body size

Nomenclature

(Morris 1898; Moyal 2001)

  • Genus: Ornithorhynchus
    • From Greek, meaning “bird-like”
  • Species: anatinus
    • From Latin, meaning “duck-like”
  • Platypus (common name)
    • From Greek, meaning “broad, flat feet”

Synonyms

  • Scientific name
    • Platypus anatinus (Shaw, 1799) (Grant 2015)
    • Ornithorhynchus paradoxus (Blumenbach, 1800) (Grant 2015; Jackson and Groves 2015)
  • Genus Ornithorhynchus (Jackson and Groves 2015)
    • Platypus (Shaw, 1799)
    • Dermipus (Wiedemann, 1800)
    • Variations and misspellings of Ornithorhynchus

Common names

  • Platypus, duck-billed platypus (English) (Moyal 2001; Jackson and Groves 2015; Woinarski and Burbidge 2016; ITIS 2018)
    • Historically, “water mole”

Other colloquial or local names

  • Mallangong (Grant 2007; Bridges, undated)
    • Means “duck-like”
  • Mallunggang (Grant 2007)
  • Tambreet (Wood 1866; Grant 2007)
  • Billadurong (Grant 2007)
  • Tohunbuck (Wood 1866)
  • Gaya-dari (Bino et al. 2019)
  • Boonaburra (Bino et al. 2019)
  • Lare-re-lar (Bino et al. 2019)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Monotremes (egg-laying mammals) were once a more diverse group (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Today, only one platypus species and four echidna species remain
    • Falsely labeled ‘primitive’ by early scientists—monotremes are highly specialized and successful in their ecological, reproductive, and life history niches (see Augee et al. 2006, p. 23)
  • Divergence of egg-laying mammals and live-bearing mammals
    • About 220 mya (Triassic) (Rowe et al. 2008; Madsen 2009)
      • Based on genetic evidence
        • Further fossil evidence needed for corroboration (Rowe et al. 2008)
  • Early monotremes
    • Earliest monotreme, Teinolophos trusleri, emerged 130 mya (Rowe et al. 2008; Nicol 2015; Rich et al. 2016)
    • Echidna-like monotreme, Kryoryctes cadburyi, from the Cretaceous (Pridmore et al. 2005)
  • Only the lineage containing the echidnas and platypuses survived the Australian ‘marsupial invasion’ of the Eocene to early Cretaceous (Phillips et al. 2009; Thomas H. Rich, personal communication, 2018)
  • Divergence between echidnas and platypuses difficult to estimate (Phillips et al. 2009; Nicol 2015)—large gap in the fossil record (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Estimates vary (Rowe et al. 2008; Phillips et al. 2009)
      • 17-90 mya (Rowe et al. 2008; Springer and Krajewski 2009)
      • Likely during or before early Cretaceous (Rowe et al. 2008)
    • Common ancestor of platypus and echidnas was also venomous, possibly for defense (Whittington and Belov 2014)
      • Venom in modern platypus thought to be used by adult males to gain mating access to females (not defense)
    • Platypus thought to be older than echidnas (Augee et al. 2006; Phillips et al. 2009)
  • Ornithorhynchus agilis (3.8 mya) may be oldest fossil relative to living/extant platypus (Bino et al. 2019)
    • Emergence of modern platypus traceable to at least approximately 0.7 to 0.8 mya
  • Four known prehistoric platypus species (Pian et al. 2013; Grant 2015, except as noted)
    • Three from Australia, one from South America
    • Obdurodon insignis
      • Late Oligocene (24-26 mya)
    • Obdurodon dicksoni
      • Early to middle Miocene (11-24 mya)
      • Had teeth (Asahara et al. 2016)
        • Modern platypus has no teeth
      • May have fed on open water prey (Asahara et al. 2016)
        • Modern platypus is a bottom forager
      • Had a bill that was less electro- or mechanoreceptive than the modern platypus (Asahara et al. 2016)
    • Obdurdon tharalkooschild (Pian et al. 2013)
      • Probably mid-Miocene to Quaternary (5-15 mya)
      • Largest known extinct platypus
      • Crushing teeth rather than cutting teeth
    • Monotrematum sudamericanum
      • Paleocene (61-63 mya)
      • From Argentina

Cultural History

History

  • 1797: Europeans first encountered the platypus (Stanbury and Phipps 1980; Hobbins 2015)
  • 1799: simultaneous scientific descriptions by George Shaw and J.F. Blumenbach (see Taxonomy) (Ritvo 1997; Hobbins 2015)
  • Early 1800s: studies of spur-venom gland (crural) system, reproductive systems (Hobbins 2015), and milk production (Olsen 2010)
    • Idea that a mammal could lay eggs resisted by scientific establishment (Bino et al. 2019)
  • 1884: confirmation of egg laying (Stanbury and Phipps 1980)
    • For in-depth history, see Gruber (1991)
  • 1890s: first anatomical studies of bill receptors (Scheich et al. 1986; Manger and Pettigrew 1996) [possibly as early as 1885 (Grant 2007, p. 55)]
    • Function postulated to be for touch, not electroreception (see Scheich discovery in 1986, below) (Manger and Pettigrew 1996)
  • 1892: platypus given protected status in Victoria (Grant 2007)
  • Until about 1900: platypus commercially hunted for fur (Grant 2015)
  • Late 1800s and early 1900s: widely hunted for sport (Bino et al. 2019)
  • 1901-1907: platypus given protected status in New South Wales, Queensland, and Tasmania (Grant 2007)
  • 1912: platypus given protected status in South Australia (Grant 2015)
    • At that time, was extinct (or nearly extinct) in the region
  • 1925: Publication of Harry (Henry) Burrell’s well-known book, The Platypus (Moyal 2001)
    • First detailed natural history study of the platypus
      • Based on 25 years of observational fieldwork
  • 1952: Playtpus permanently protected in Australia (Hawke et al. 2019)
    • Followed state-level protections
  • 1970s, 1990s to present: Renewed scientific interest in reproduction, physiology, ecology, and behavior (Bino et al. 2019)
  • 1982: Mucormycosis, a infectious disease that kills platypus, first detected in Tasmania (Whittington et al. 1992)
  • 1986: Henning Scheich published a paper in Nature, demonstrating that the platypus possesses a “sixth sense,” electroreception (Scheich et al. 1986)
    • Platypus was the first mammal shown to have electroreception (Manger and Pettigrew 1996)
    • Different electrosensory system from that of fish and other mammals (Moyal 2001)
    • See discussion by Moyal (2001), Chapter 15
  • For in-depth history, see Moyal (2001)
  • Also see History of Managed Care

Culture and folklore

  • 19th century natural history literature described the platypus as a strange anomaly (Hobbins 2015, except as noted)
    • First specimen sent to Europe thought to be a hoax (Stanbury and Phipps 1980; Ritvo 1997)
    • Challenged zoological understandings of the time
    • Extensively written about in Europe
    • Naturalists fascinated by platypus reproductive and venom delivery systems (e.g., Burrell 1927)
  • Public perceptions in Australia (Hawke et al. 2019)
    • Late 19th century: considered an "unwelcome intruder" that fed on fish eggs; many platypus shot
    • Early 20th century: growing concern about declines in platypus abundance; calls for protection and a ban on fur trade
    • 1930s: Increased admiration for platypus natural history
  • Symbolism
    • Aboriginal rock art
      • Engravings near Sydney (Barrett 1941) and Cape York (Moyal 2001)
    • Political gifts
      • During WWII, Australian government used platypuses as diplomatic gifts to allied nations (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
        • Believed this animal could improve government relations and boost public morale during wartime
        • Platypus perceived as a distinctive symbol of Australia
      • See History of Managed Care
  • Role in Aboriginal cultures
    • Food source
      • Hunted by spear (Grant 2007; Grant 2015) and digging into burrows (Bino et al. 2019)
    • Furs used (Grant 2007)
    • Totemic animal (Moyal 2001)
    • Dreamtime stories
      • Origin of the platypus
        • In one story, a female duck and a water rat (rakali) mated—offspring had their mother’s webbed feet and bill, and their father’s legs and dense brown fur (Grant 2015)
      • Platypus associated with creation of features of the Australian geography/landscape (e.g., Snowy River in New South Wales) (Moyal 2001)
    • Also see references and discussion in Bino et al. (2019)

Books

  • Selected non-fiction
  • Selected children’s books
    • Platypus by Sue Whiting [illustrations by Mark Jackson] (2015) — Candlewick Press
    • Shy the Platypus by Leslie Rees (2012, re-publication of a 1944 story) — National Library Publishing (out of print)
    • SPLATypus by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (2017) — Two Lions Press
  • See The Australian Platypus Conservancy’s extensive Reading List

Poetry

  • A. B. Paterson, “Old Man Platypus,” The Animals Noah Forgot
  • R. Strahan, The Incomplete Book of Australian Mammals (children’s book)
  • Harry Burrell, “The Mud-sucking Platypus”
    • See Moyal 2001, p. 173-174

Television and film

  • Documentaries
    • David Attenborough’s Tasmania (2018) — Humble Bee Films, Black Devil Productions, BBC
    • The Life of Mammals, Vol. 1 (“The Winning Design”) — BBC
      • Footage inside a platypus nesting burrow
    • Platypus — The World’s Strangest Animal (2003)

Art

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia (Linnaeus, 1758) — mammals

Order: Monotremata (Bonaparte, 1837) — monotremes (egg-laying mammals)

Family: Ornithorhynchidae (Gray, 1825 sensu Burnett, 1830)

Genus: Ornithorhynchus (Blumenbach, 1800)

Species: Ornithorhynchus anatinus (Shaw, 1799) – platypus, duck-billed platypus

Sources: Jackson and Groves (2015); Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2018)

Pair of Platypuses

1863 illustration of two platypuses by John Gould

An illustration of two platypuses by John Gould (1863).

Here, Gould focuses on the bill, webbed feet, and thick tail of the platypus. In the lower right, a platypus is in a curled posture (adopted while sleeping and likely to be the position a female adopts while incubating her eggs).

This sketch was completed during a trip that Gould made to Australia from 1838-1840.

"Ornithorhynchus anatinus"; Plate 1 in John Gould's The Mammals of Australia (1863).

Image credit: Made available by Biodiversity Heritage Library (contributed to BHL by Smithsonian Libraries). Public domain.

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