Historical Background and Naming
Courtesy of: The Australian Platypus Conservancy
The Fossil Record Return to Platypus Page
Based on a fragment of lower jaw found in opal deposits at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, a type of ancestral platypus (Steropodon galmani) existed alongside the dinosaurs about 110 million years ago.
In 1991, a fossil tooth belonging to a different kind of ancient platypus (originally described as Monotrematum sudamericanum but now probably regarded as another Obdurodon species) was discovered in the Patagonian desert of Argentina.
The tooth was found in sediments deposited over 60 million years ago, at the time when Australia and South America were still joined as part of the southern supercontinent Gondwana.
Fossils belonging to three other extinct platypus species (Obdurodon insignis, Obdurodon dicksoni, and Obdurodon sp. A) have been found in Australian sediments deposited between 25 and 15 million years ago, while a leg bone from the first close relative of the modern platypus (Ornithorhynchus sp.) has been dated to about 4.5 million years ago.
The earliest known remains of the platypus in its current form (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) date back to around 100,000 years ago.
The platypus is sometimes described as a "living fossil" because of this ancient lineage and its combination of mammalian and reptilian features.
Aboriginal legend Return to Platypus Page
According to Aboriginal legend, the first platypus were born after a young female duck mated with a lonely and persuasive water-rat.
The duck's offspring had their mother's bill and webbed feet and their father's four legs and handsome brown fur.
Scientific recognition Return to Platypus Page
In 1799, the platypus was first described by a British scientist, Dr George Shaw.
His initial reaction to this original specimen was that it was an elaborate hoax.
He even took a pair of scissors to the pelt, expecting to find stitches attaching the bill to the skin.
Platypus names Return to Platypus Page
Early British colonists in Australia called the platypus a "water mole". Prior to the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal people had many different names for the animal, including "boondaburra", "mallingong" and "tambreet".
Dr Shaw, in his scientific description of 1799, gave the name Platypus anatinus, from Greek and Latin words meaning "flat-footed, duck-like". However, when it became known that Platypus had already been used to name a group of beetles, a new term had to be adopted. The official scientific name became and remains Ornithorhynchus anatinus, with the first word meaning "bird-like snout".
Although the name "duckbill" was widely used as a popular description for the animal, the abandoned scientific name "platypus" gradually became the accepted common name for the species.
The preferred plural of platypus is either "platypus" or "platypuses", depending on which dictionary you consult. (We use the former for the sake of simplicity.) The term "platypi" is no longer considered to be valid.
There is no accepted term - equivalent to pup or cub - to describe a baby platypus. One possible name recently suggested is a "platapup"