Specimens of echidna and platypus dating back almost 150 years have been found in a university museum.
Collected in 1880 by scientist William Caldwell, the specimens were found in the shops of the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology.
At the time of their collection, these specimens were instrumental in demonstrating that some mammals lay eggs, a fact that changed the course of scientific thought and supported the theory of evolution.
An echidna from the newly discovered collection by Scottish zoologist William Caldwell. The egg-laying mammal with the long snout and claws is native to Australia and New Guinea
A newly discovered echidna specimen suspected of being collected by William Caldwell
WHO WHAT WILLIAM CALDWELL?
William Caldwell (1859-1941) was a Scottish zoologist who did research in Australia in the 1880s.
Born in Portobello, Edinburgh in 1859, he moved from Loretto (Scotland’s oldest college) to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1877.
He was a scholar of his College in 1878-83 and obtained a first class in the Tripos of natural sciences of 1881.
William Caldwell was sent to Australia in 1883, with substantial financial support from the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the British government.
In extensive research, Caldwell collected around 1,400 specimens with the help of a large group of Australian Aborigines. In 1884 the team eventually found an echidna with an egg in its pouch and a platypus with an egg in its nest and another that was about to be laid.
This unique collection had not been cataloged by the museum, so until recently the staff were unaware of its existence.
The discovery was made by Jack Ashby, the museum’s deputy director, while he was researching a new book on Australian mammals.
‘It is one thing to read the 19th century announcements that platypuses and echidnas actually lay eggs. But to have the physical specimens here, which link us to that discovery nearly 150 years ago, is pretty amazing, ‘Ashby said.
“I knew from experience that there is no natural history collection on Earth that actually has a complete catalog of everything in it, and I suspected the Caldwell specimens really must have been here.”
Three months after Ashby asked collections manager Mathew Lowe to keep an eye on the Caldwell specimens, a small box of the specimens was found in the museum with a note suggesting they were Caldwell’s, which was later confirmed by the Ashby’s investigation.
Until Europeans first encountered platypuses and echidnas in the 1890s, all mammals were assumed to give birth to live young.
The question of whether certain mammals lay eggs has become one of the greatest questions of 19th-century zoology and much debated in scientific circles.
The newly discovered collection of jars represents the enormous scientific effort that went into solving this mystery.
A well-preserved specimen of platypus in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. Platypuses are one of the few mammals that can detect electricity and one of the few mammals that produce venom.
“In the 19th century, many conservative scientists did not want to believe that there could be a mammal that lays eggs, because that would have supported the theory of evolution, the idea that one animal group could transform into another,” he said. said Ashby.
‘Lizards and frogs lay eggs, so the idea of a mammal laying eggs was rejected by many people – I think they thought it was degrading to be related to animals they considered’ inferior life forms ‘.’
The newly discovered collection includes echidnas, platypus and marsupials in different stages of life from fertilized egg to adolescence.
Caldwell was the first to make complete collections of every stage in the life of these species, although not all of his specimens have been found in the Cambridge museum.
Jack Ashby, Deputy Director of the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology, holds a newly discovered Caldwell specimen
Ashby said, “Platypuses and echidnas are not weird and primitive animals as many historical accounts describe them: they evolved like anything else.”
Caldwell was sent to Australia in 1883 with substantial financial support from the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the British government.
In extensive research Caldwell collected around 1,400 specimens with the help of a large group of Australian Aborigines.
In 1884, the team eventually found an echidna with an egg in its pouch and a platypus with an egg in its nest and another that was about to be laid.
This was the ultimate proof that Caldwell was looking for and the news was sent around the world.
Apparently the colonial scientific establishment was only willing to accept this result now that it had been confirmed by “one of them”.
For the past two centuries, scientists have consistently believed in Australian mammals describing them as strange and inferior, according to Ashby.
He believes this language continues to influence the way we describe them today and undermines efforts to preserve them.
Another recently discovered echidna. Believe it or not, echidna spines are actually long, hard, hollow hair follicles
The specimens were found in the shops of the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology (pictured with Ashby)
“Platypuses and echidnas are not weird and primitive animals as many historical accounts describe them: they evolved like anything else,” Ashby said.
“It’s just that they never stopped laying eggs. I think they are absolutely fantastic and definitely worth evaluating. ‘
Spike-covered echidnas are the most common mammal in Australia.
They cover the entire continent and have adapted to living in all climates, from snow-capped mountains to the driest deserts.
Platypuses are one of the few mammals that can detect electricity and one of the few mammals that produce poison.
With the tail like a beaver, the flat beak and the webbed feet like a duck, the first specimens brought to Europe were considered by some to be fakes sewn together.
Ashby’s new book, Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals, is released in the UK on Thursday (May 12) by HarperCollins.
ECHIDNA’S MUSTACHE SCIENTISTS WITH THE “STRANGEST PENIS” IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM – AND YOU WILL NEVER GUESS WHAT THEY ARE
The “very strange and unusual” echidna penis remains a mystery to researchers who still don’t understand why it has four heads.
The “very long” phallus makes up one third of the mammal’s body while erect, is bright red and has four endings, all of which can be used for reproduction.
University of Queensland Researcher Dr Steve Johnston co-authored a study on the massive member of the short-beaked echidna, but said that only “the creator God” knows why it has such a bizarre shape.
It could be to please the insatiable female echidna, which scientists say could mate with up to a dozen males during ovulation.
ATTENTION: GRAPHIC CONTENTS: This Australian animal has the “strangest penis” in the animal kingdom