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Platypus, echidna specimens that helped prove evolution discovered in Cambridge museum


The newly discovered echidna specimen which was suspected to be collected by Caldwell.

The newly discovered echidna specimen which was suspected to be collected by Caldwell.Credit:Jacqueline Garget

“Lizards and frogs lay eggs, so the idea of a mammal laying eggs was dismissed by many people – I think they felt it was degrading to be related to animals that they considered ‘lower life forms’.“

For 85 years, European naturalists had attempted to find proof that platypuses and echidnas lay eggs – including by asking Aboriginal Australians – but any results they sent home were ignored or dismissed.

Caldwell, a Scottish zoologist, was sent to Australia in 1883 with substantial financial backing from Cambridge, the Royal Society and the British government to help resolve the long-standing scientific mystery which had divided academics by 85 years.

With the assistance of the local Indigenous peoples, he set up camp on the banks of the Burnett River in northern Queensland, hunting for lungfish, echidna and platypus eggs. Assisted by a team of 150 Aboriginal men and women, he eventually discovered some monotreme eggs.

In 1884, the team eventually found an echidna with an egg in her pouch, and a platypus with one egg in her nest and another just about to be laid.

The newly discovered collection includes monotremes – echidnas and platypuses – and marsupials at varying life stages from fertilised egg to adolescence.

It was the definitive proof Caldwell had been looking for and the news was sent around the world.

The colonial scientific establishment finally accepted the result because it had been confirmed by “one of their own”.

Ashby said that over the previous century, scientists had consistently belittled Australian mammals by describing them as strange and inferior. He said the language continued to affect how they are described today, which was undermining efforts to conserve them.

Platypuses were pushed towards the brink by the devastating 2019/20 bushfires that scorched their habitat and spewed river-clogging ash into their streams.

“Platypuses and echidnas are not weird, primitive animals – as many historic accounts depict them – they are as evolved as anything else. It’s just that they’ve never stopped laying eggs,” he said.

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