Duck-billed platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus

Franz Bauer1803

The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum

Few animals have confused the scientific world as much as the duck-billed platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus.

When the first platypus specimen arrived from Australia in 1798 scientists were convinced it was a fake. How could an animal covered in fur also have a bird's beak? Many fakes were being produced at the time - particularly in China - by stitching together leftover animal parts. Such fakes included the eastern monkey, with the body of a monkey and the tail of a fish. Not only did the platypus look odd from the outside, but its insides were strange, too. If it was a mammal, as the fur would suggest, where were the uterus and milk glands, the other typical mammalian features? The platypus did not have them.

It took a year of careful study before scientists felt reassured the platypus was not a joke, but a new and remarkable animal to science. The monotremes - the platypus and the echidnas - are thought to be the most primitive of living mammals and are the only ones that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young. The platypus is also unique as it is the only mammal known to detect electric fields, which it uses to find its prey. It is also one of the few mammals able to produce venom.

The Natural History Museum has the original duck-billed platypus specimen from 1798, now the type specimen. The Museum also holds Ferdinand Bauer's platypus watercolour, based on his sketches from the HMS Investigator voyage to Australia in the early 1800s. The picture was one of the first attempts by a European artist to record Australian flora and fauna.

Relatively unknown during their lifetimes, brothers Ferdinand and Franz Bauer are recognised today as pioneers of scientific natural history illustration.

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  • Title: Duck-billed platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus
  • Creator: Franz Bauer
  • Date Created: 1803
  • Subject Keywords: Discovering diversity