5 Fun Facts: Platypus Edition!

Platypus

                                                                          Image from National Geographic

The humble platypus is a living dinosaur and one of nature’s most random animals.

To help us get to know these 3-pound bottom feeders from Australia, I gathered 4 facts and one myth to test your zoological wits.

Can you spot the imposter?

Fact #1: Platypus males are venomous while females are not.

Fact #2: The platypus is the last living member of its family and genus. All of its known relatives are fossils.

Fact #3: It’s featured on the back of Australia’s 10-cent coin.

Fact #4: The first scientist to study the platypus thought it was an elaborate hoax. Frank Wilson, an early 19th-century illustrator known for combining animals into unique creations, initially claimed credit for the hoax. He was interviewed by the London Times on July 7, 1813, and this is how he explained the animal’s creation:

I was borrowing an old school friend’s science laboratory in Cambridge in order to conduct research for my next story. With help from the London Zoo, I was able to attain specimens of a mallard duck, an otter, and, of course, a beaver. Within weeks, to my delight, I had assembled the world’s first platypus.

Spotted in Hawaii: part peacock, part rooster.

Another Wilson creation? This peacock rooster was recently seen in Hawaii.

The hoax sparked a brief uproar across 3 continents. One Russian editorial titled “The Mad Illustrator,” for example, called for Wilson’s head in order to connect it to a duck body. For a time, Wilson was an international celebrity. He attempted to capitalize on his newfound fame by publishing a manifesto, How to Help Mother Nature, which was essentially a list of possible animal combinations with corresponding illustrations. It sold nearly 4,000 volumes in its initial run.

Two years later, in 1815, a traveling English scientist spotted a platypus family in New South Wales, Australia. Word quickly spread that the hoax was a hoax.

For Wilson, the fallout was severe. His illustrations were never published again, and after years of depression and rumored alcoholism, he was committed to the Nottingham Mental Health Hospital. A follow-up story published in 1827 revealed that in spite of the natural record, which by then could trace the mammal back millions of years, Wilson lamented the “deficit of cultural imagination” that led scientists to tarnish his claim and to smear his good name. Asked whether he had any regrets over the incident, he remained firm. “I will never apologize for inventing the platypus.”

Fact #5: A platypus can track its prey through electrolocation, which enables the hunter to sense electric fields generated by its target’s muscle contractions.

Could you tell fact from fiction?

Fact #2 is fiction. The platypus is actually on Australia’s 20-cent coin. Not the 10-cent coin.

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