Aug 30, 2022 I Brent Swancer

The Time the Platypus was Considered to be an Absurd Legend

There are many supposed cryptids out there in the far corners of our world. These undiscovered, unclassified creatures seem to forever evade us, only known through fuzzy phtotos and eyewitness accounts that are often met with great skepticism and even outright scoffing. Yet, history has many cases of such creatures that were once considered to be firmly in the realm of myth and the imagination, but which proved to be very real indeed. One of these was the platypus, which was at one time considered to be an absurd figment of the imagination that could not possibly exist for real. 

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), also known as the duck-billed platypus, is undeniably one of the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. Found in eastern Australia, it is one of the only five existing species of monotremes, which are mammals that lay eggs rather than bear live young. This egg-laying mammal, with its duck-like bill, flattened tail like that of a beaver, otter-like feet, and the presence of spurs with venom in males, making it one of the few venomous mammals, sounds preposterous even now knowing that they really exist. Yet back in the 18th century it was so weird that it was considered by early European explorers to be a purely fanciful Aboriginal myth. The animal was well known to the Aborigines, who believed that it had originated with the mating of a duck with a water rat, and the platypus was often hunted, yet it was totally unknown to the outside world.

A platypus

Early European explorers often heard stories from the Aborigines of this water dwelling mammal with a duck bill that laid eggs like a bird, but they were treated with great skepticism and few believed that such a preposterous amalgam of bird and mammal could possibly be a real animal. Those explorers who did manage to see the platypus for themselves were often ridiculed and were generally not believed by both other explorers and naturalists back in their homeland. When the first British colony was established in Australia in 1788, the colonists took to calling these strange creatures “duckbills,” “watermoles,” or duckmoles,” yet these stories were still largely dismissed as hogwash by naturalists. In 1798, Captain John Hunter, who was the second Governor of New South Wales, managed to procure a pelt of one of the mysterious creatures, which he sent back to Great Britain for examination along with a sketch. There it was immediately accused by a very skeptical scientific community of being an elaborate hoax. This general attitude was reflected in the first official scientific description of the specimen in 1799 by the English zoologist and Keeper of the Department of Natural History of the Modern Curiosities of the British Museum, George Shaw, who was also fairly certain that it was faked. Shaw would write of the carcass in the journal Nature's Miscellany:

Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped. So accurate is the similitude that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means: the very epidermis, proportion, features, manner of opening, and other particulars of the beak of a shoveler, or other broad-bill species of duck, presenting themselves to the view: nor is it without the most minute and rigid examination that we can persuade ourselves of its being the real beak or snout of a quadruped...

On a subject so extraordinary as the present, a degree of skepticism is not only pardonable, but laudable; and I ought perhaps to acknowledge that I almost doubt the testimony of my own eyes with respect to the structure of this animal's beak; yet must confess that I can perceive no appearance of any deceptive preparation; and the edges of the rictus, the insertion, and when tried by the test of maceration in water, so as to render every part completely moveable seem perfectly natural; nor can the most accurate examination of expert anatomists discover any deception in this particular.

It certainly did not help the case for the platypus as a real creature that fake bodies of various mythical creatures were often produced in that era, such as “mermaids” made by sewing the upper body of a monkey to the tail of a fish and other such oddities. So convinced was Shaw at first that the creature laying before him was an elaborate fake that he even went so far as to cut it open with scissors, fully expecting to find out how it had been stitched together. And so would begin a journey that would last the better part of a century, as baffled scientists and naturalists tried to piece together the puzzle of this mystifying creature.

An early sketch of platypus

At first, there was great debate as to what the platypus could actually be, with some saying it was a mammal, others claiming it to be a whole new class of animals, and still others theorizing that it represented some sort of “missing link” between mammals and reptiles, all while a good number within the scientific community continued to maintain that it was all a hoax. Even when the platypus eventually began to gain traction as being an actual animal and to slowly gain acceptance within zoology, it still managed to further confound scientists and shake established paradigms the more it was studied, as more of the creature’s bizarreness was revealed.

One feature of the platypus that was met with great skepticism was the notion that it laid eggs rather than give birth to live young. British colonists in Australia and Aborigines insisted that the platypus laid eggs and nursed its young, but this was met with derision by zoologists. At the time, no animal was known to both lay eggs and suckle its young, and the idea of a mammal that laid eggs was considered to be completely ridiculous. The paradigm at the time was that birds and reptiles laid eggs and did not nurse their young, and milk producing mammals gave live birth, that was that. The whole concept of anything otherwise was considered alien, absurd, and had no place in zoology. To the scientific community it was unthinkable, just superstitious, fanciful tales from Aborigines and uneducated colonists. Indeed, many naturalists set out into the field with the sole purpose of trying to debunk the stories that the platypus laid eggs, such as finding a specimen with a fully formed embryo in its body in utero that would show that no egg was being produced. Of course, it did turn out that they indeed do lay eggs and suckle their young, but for almost a century the platypus was a paradox that stirred up as much debate and skepticism as any cryptid, and showed that overturning the entrenched paradigms, prejudices, mores, orthodoxy, and dogma of the scientific community can be a long, tedious process.

It is perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale that we can use in the field of crytpozoology, that a seemingly "impossible" animal cannot possibly exist. Indeed there has been a long hisory of cases like this in the natural world, with us populating this planet with animals that were once considered every bit as fantastical and improbable as one might consider something like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster to be today, but were found to be real after all. Perhaps it goes to show that sometimes truly strange things can exist, and that perhaps we should not always be too quick to write some stories off. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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