Mosaics from the heritage of ELTE – July 2022

Object of the month – Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

The mounted and stuffed  preparations of the Biological and Paleontological Exhibition at the ELTE Museum of Natural History exemplify the traditional way of presenting animal diversity. Our exhibits provide an overview of the large metazoan groups from the species living in our immediate environment to the exotic animals of distant landscapes. Some of the exhibited species have now become threatened in their natural habitat, such as the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), which is legally protected in nature throughout Australia and Tasmania.

Zoologists got to know the platypus in 1798 after the governor of New South Wales sent a specimen (actually a pelt) to England. However, some scientists have suspected deliberate deception because of its beaver-like tail, dense fur reminding an otter, and especially the flat, beak-like formations that made up the mouth. However, their suspicions were soon replaced by puzzling: the strange newcomer did not fit into the system created by Linnaeus: it looked like a mammal based on its fur, but it had a cloaca like reptiles, and a beak reminiscent of birds. A more in-depth study of its physique revealed that it had mammary glands, so it could feed its offspring with milk. However, due to internal genitals and cloaca, egg-laying seemed likely and the two modes of reproduction seemed incompatible: opinions of prominent anatomists were divided on the subject. Decades later, in 1884, a young Scottish zoologist reported on the evidentiary observation in a four-word telegram: „Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.” Hereafter, it became certain that the platypus lays its eggs indeed, and that the cleavage of the egg occurs in a manner known in reptiles and birds.

Before having the knowledge of the exact way of its reproduction, a copy for our collection was acquired in 1872 from Edward Gerrard and Sons, one of the most famous workshops in taxidermy in Europe. All we know about the origin of our other specimen is that it was transferred from the learning collection of the medical faculty to the Institute of Systematic Zoology, then still part of the Faculty of Arts, in 1939, after the termination of general zoology education at the Faculty of Medicine.

Written by: Júlia Katalin Török, ELTE Department of Systematic Zoology and Ecology

Source/author of illustration:
ELTE Természetrajzi Múzeum