The platypus: What nature’s weirdest mammal says about our origins

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Platypuses glow in UV light, produce venom and lay eggs. Yet despite their oddities, their newly sequenced genome illuminates the evolution of mammals



Life



5 May 2021

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Doug Gimesy/naturepl.com

WHEN news reached London of a mole-like animal with webbed feet and a duck’s bill, many people thought it was a hoax. It was the late 18th century, Britain had just begun colonising Australia and the strange creature had been spotted by no less a figure than David Collins, founder of New South Wales. However, when zoologist George Shaw at the British Museum examined sketches and specimens of the animal, he was sceptical. “It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means,” he wrote.

Attitudes changed as more specimens arrived. In 1799, Shaw was the first to scientifically describe the creature, giving it the name Platypus anatinus, meaning “flat-footed duck”. It was later referred to as the “paradoxical bird-snout” before being officially renamed Ornithorhynchus anatinus, meaning “duck-like bird snout”. Today, most people just call it the platypus.

It took more than 80 years just to work out how this animal fits into the tree of life. Since then, biologists have gone even further and found that it possesses a range of features that mean it is among the most unusual creatures on Earth. But it isn’t simply an oddity. As a mammal that shares many characteristics with birds and reptiles, the platypus holds the key to unlocking some fundamental evolutionary mysteries.

Now, geneticists have mapped its entire genome and are starting to understand how it came to be so strange – and what it can tell us about the origins of all mammals, including us. Even today, it turns out, the platypus has the ability to surprise.

The platypus is one of just five remaining …

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