Darwin’s Ornithorhynchus

By | June 29th, 2010|Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

Duck-billed Platypus gets a Mention in the Origin of Species

The web-footed, venomous, egg-laying mammal (a monotreme), has been known to science for over 200  years.  This furry little animal, with its duck-like bill, is a native of eastern Australia and Tasmania.  It was first described and studied at the end of the 18th Century.  Although, when the first pelts of this animal were seen by Europeans it was thought to be an elaborate joke.  Europeans thought at first; that the beak had been glued or stitched onto the fur.  However, just sixty years after this small mammal became known to science Darwin uses the Platypus to elucidate on the difficulties encountered by scientists as they attempt to classify organisms.

The duck-billed Platypus (genus Ornithorhynchus) is actually a very ancient type of mammal, perhaps the oldest known type of mammal extant today.  There is fossil evidence to suggest that animals similar to the modern Platypus lived as long ago as the Early Cretaceous, approximately 120 million years ago.

To read more about fossils of Ornithorhynchus: Duck-billed Platypus lived alongside Duck-billed Dinosaurs.

In one of the closing chapters of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin muses on the problems encountered by scientists as they try to classify organisms on the bases of common characteristics.  He uses some of the work of Sir Richard Owen to support his arguments and refers specifically to the duck-billed Platypus stating:

“If the Ornithorhynchus had been covered in with feathers instead of hair, this external and trifling character, would, I think, have been considered by naturalists as important an aid in determining the degree of affinity of this strange creature to birds and reptiles, as an approach in structure in any one internal and important organ.”

One of the  problems we have encountered with our copy of “The Origin of Species”, a copy of the third edition, is that the glossary and index are not very comprehensive.  It would help readers if an explanation for the genera named in the book and other scientific terms used was given so that readers could appreciate the comments and points Darwin is attempting to make.