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Thursday, 5 April 2012

Guest Blogger Lisa Hardcastle

The Platypus Problem

“A Disbeliever in everything beyond his reason might exclaim,
surely two Creators must have been at work.”
Charles Darwin, 1836

As crypto zoological debates rumble on, year in and year out, one has to wonder what the effect of confirmation and discovery will be upon parties with deeply entrenched views, should it ever happen. Imagine someone shooting dead the first ever Sasquatch. Or being close enough to The Loch Ness Monster to take a clear picture and feed it a sandwich. Will these creatures of myth and mystery suddenly ‘disappear’ from popular consciousness? Will we no longer think about the now tamed and imprisoned Yeti? Will we begin to wonder what Nessie meat tastes like, and desire a Sasquatch fur coat? It’s a point worth pondering when we consider the overlooked and humble platypus, discovered in Australia at the height of popular interest in zoology and new life forms.
The opening quote is from Charles Darwin’s very first report on encountering the much-debated duck-billed platypus. For quite some time its mere existence was a matter of international debate, so alien was the description of the strange creature.
Competing biologists batted theories back and forth, with utter disbelief at the accounts filtering out of eastern Australia, as early as 1798. A venomous mammal, with fur, which laid eggs, with feet like an otter, and a bill like a duck? It did sound wholly improbable, failing as it did to fit any taxonomic classification at that time. Biology mattered back then. It caused arguments. Big ones. The science was all new, but still some believed that nothing this new could possibly exist. They had their classifications, and this creature, from a penal colony no less, most certainly did not fit.
Captain John Hunter, a naval officer and botanist, who became the 2nd Governor of New South Wales, eventually caught a specimen. A reliable enough witness, one would have thought. He killed the creature and sent its pelt back to England, for examination, along with a sketch. But British biologists were far from convinced, suspecting that the creature was a hoax. The renowned scientist George Shaw, who examined the pelt was not impressed at all. Although he was used to dealing with specimens in very poor condition, as assistant keeper at the Natural History Museum in London, he took one look at the pelt and declared it a fraud in terms that would have left Captain Hunter smarting. In the polite language of the day he stated that it was impossible not to entertain doubts as to its ‘genuine nature’. His meaning was clear. Controversial zoologist Robert Knox went further, claiming the pelt must have been manufactured by ‘an Asian taxidermist’. Shaw eventual took a pair of scissors to the pelt, checking along the beak line for stitches.
Prejudice and Disbelief
The debate raged on, from the turn of the century right up until the 1830s with zoologists arguing their views vociferously like stock brokers trading in shares. Because of the view of Australia at the time, which was basically a penal colony, many people dismissed the creature as a mutant, just like the inhabitants of the country, who were all ‘queer and opposite’, along with their animals. The attitude to the Aboriginal natives was not too dissimilar. The Aboriginal people had known about the platypus for centuries, of course, but their views and voices were largely brushed aside.
The Hunt Goes On
Notoriously retiring, the capture of a live platypus still eluded the scientific world. One naturalist, Dr George Bennett, spent fifty years trying to find the creature, tearing up the countryside to find it in one of its extensive burrow networks. Finally, Darwin, on board The Beagle, visited Australia where he laid eyes on a platypus for himself, and penned his astonished reaction to meeting the creature for the first time. The platypus re-wrote the science books, throwing the cat amongst the scientific pigeons for some time.
Just Another Animal
In time the thrill of the chase and the intellectual challenge dimmed. The platypus became just another animal, and was hunted for its fur, until it became a protected species. Captive breeding was not successful, and gradually interest in the strange creature died down. It was an animal many people believe passionately existed, and others doubted wholly – not unlike the modern day Sasquatch or the Chupacubra. When they are discovered, finally, if they are and the first live specimen displayed to the world, how long will it take for the fuss to die down, one wonders? How long before there are hunting trips to shoot a Yeti, or traps laid to take its skin? And how much responsibility will we all have for what happens? Questions to ponder perhaps, with interest in cryptozoology at a high level currently.
Happily the Platypus is now the National Emblem of New South Wales and appears as a cultural icon on coins. Let’s just hope the Sasquatch ends up honored in the same way…

1863 picture of platypi
Early depiction
Platypus Burrow
Dentition of a platypus - Date 1849 Source Volume 1 of Sketches in Natural History: History of the Mammalia,  Author Charles Knight
Captain John Hunter
Robert Knox c 1830
Venomous Spur on the platypus’s rear paw
Platypus swimming

Lisa Hardcastle is a freelance writer from England who writes on behalf of many good causes including drug addiction treatment centers.

1 comment:

  1. Lisa brings up many good and relevent points but I think and hope that wouldn't happen today. Too many people would raise an outcry, laws would quickly be passed banning harrassment, etc. There was no conservation ethic then; it wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th cent. that that began, so it was a very different time.

    I think we have only to look at the hue and cry over the alleged Bigfoot shooting in California recently to get an idea of what may happen. There may be one or two incidents, but I don't think we have to worry about a Sasquatch/Passenger Pidgeon parrallel.


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