Tag Archives: Ornithorhynchus anatinus

What would it be like to be a platypus?

The platypus is strong, vigorous, capable and successful in its natural environment. Platypus numbers have undoubtedly been reduced by human interference in their habitats. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the platypus among species of least concern, but according to information on the IUCN Red List website:

Still more information about population numbers and monitoring are crucial, especially for a long-lived species such as the Platypus where a lack of recruitment can be masked until a dramatic population crash occurs as adults reach the end of their lifespan.

When Europeans first encountered the platypus, they did not know what to make of it. George Shaw referred to it as platypus anatinus (broad- or flat-footed; duck-like, duck-billed) in an article published in 1799. An alternative scientific name (platypus having already been used of a beetle) was adopted by Johann Blumenbach in 1800, ornithorhynchus paradoxus, bird-snouted and paradoxical. Also used was platypus paradoxus. The accepted designation now is ornithorhynchus anatinus.

After half a century of exposure to the animal there was still doubt as to its appropriate classification. According to R. Montgomery Martin in his History of Austral-Asia, first published in 1836:

It is difficult to say whether the platypus (ornithorhyncus paradoxus) should be classed as an animal or a bird; it has four legs like a quadruped, and a bill like a duck, and, according to very general belief, lays eggs, and suckles its young.

It seems strange that the platypus was not given a name derived from an Aboriginal language. Governor Macquarie’s report of June 1815 on his tour across the Blue Mountains refers to the ‘water mole, or paradox’, the latter term evidently being an everyday application of the scientific term paradoxus.

In ordinary speech the term ‘platypus’ apparently took quite a long time to establish itself at the expense of other terms. Even ornithorhynchus entered common parlance, as we can see from the novel A Love Story, by a Bushman, published by George Evans in 1841, where we read:

The guest had little difficulty in recognising the uncouth form of the ornithorhynchus, or water mole.

The term ‘duck-billed platypus’ or more simply ‘duckbill platypus’ became popular as an alternative to ‘water mole’, even though there is only one platypus. Another expression in early use was ‘duck-mole’ or ‘duck-bill mole.’ No doubt there were regional variations in terminology.

Hunted as ‘game’ or investigated for its zoological and anatomical peculiarities, the platypus seems often to have been treated more as a resource or a curiosity rather than as a living, thinking creature. Certainly it is a difficult animal to get to know, with its shyness, the time it spends in water or in a burrow, and its tendency to crepuscular and nocturnal habits. Perhaps it could be found more frequently on land before the introduction of the fox.

Hunters no doubt had little time for the psychology of the platypus. One of the collectors who showed an interest was George Bennett, author of Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, published in 1860. He caught a number of platypus at different times and tried to keep them in captivity, observing their habits and interacting with them. He was able to stroke the young ones, which behaved somewhat like puppies. He tells us (p. 136):

They would sport together, attacking one another with their mandibles, and rolling over in the water in the midst of their gambols; and afterwards, when tired, get on to the turf, where they would lie combing themselves, until the fur was quite smooth and shining. It was most ludicrous to observe these uncouth-looking creatures, running about, overturning and seizing one another with their mandibles, and then, in the midst of their fun and frolic, coolly inclining to one side and scratching themselves in the gentlest manner imaginable.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Ornithorhynchus anatinus. George Shaw, Naturalist’s Miscellany; Or, Coloured Figures of Natural Objects, Drawn and Described Immediately from Nature, vol. X, London, Nodder, 1799, with two plates by Frederick Polydore Nodder. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Abbildungen naturhistorischer Gegenstände, vol. 5, no. 41 (‘Das Schnabelthier’, the duckbill). But note J.F. Bertuch (ed.), Bilderbuch für Kinder, Weimar, Verlag des Landes-Industrie-Comptoirs, 1798, vol. 3, no.80 (Das Schnabelthier, Ornithorhynchus paradoxus), discussed on the National Library of Australia website. Robert Montgomery Martin, History of Austral-Asia, comprising New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Island, Swan River, South Australia, &c. (Martin’s Colonies), London, Mortimer, 1836, p. 111; there is an extract in ‘Literature and science: Mr. Martin’s Austral-Asia’, Colonist 26/10/1837, p. 6 (Platypus capitalised), and a similar passage in his History of the British Colonies. Governor Macquarie’s tour: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10/6/1815, pp. 1-2. Love Story extract: Australasian Chronicle 7/8/1841, p. 2. Duck-mole: ‘A glossary of the most common productions in the natural history of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 28/1/1826, p. 3. Duck-bill mole: ‘To all my sensible townsmen’, Australasian Chronicle 24/9/1840, p. 2. George Bennett, Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, being Observations Principally on the Animal and Vegetable Productions of New South Wales, New Zealand, and some of the Austral Islands, London, Van Voorst, 1860. A. H. Chisholm, ‘Bennett, George (1804-1893)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 85-86, and online. Cf. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol. 2, London, Cadell and Davies, 1802; Harry Burrell, The Platypus: Its Discovery, Zoological Position, Form and Characteristics, Habits, Life History, etc., Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1927; repr., Adelaide, Rigby, 1974.