“An Antipodal Mystery” by Clyde Freeman Herreid Page 1
Part I—A Letter from Down Under … Th e river was very still on the curve where the eucalyptus dips towards the water. Th e light shaded near late afternoon and twilight would soon darken the outline of the wooded bank and the fl at landscape stretching to the horizon. Bubbles broke the surface of the water. A small brown head, its sleek furred cap glided silently in the river’s fl ow.
As you can imagine, my esteemed colleague, I wondered what the aborigine was spearing in the lake near Hawkesbury River close to Sidney. I soon discovered the answer. A small creature fought for its life with such force that it caught its assailant with its spur and seemed to cause much pain. I have taken the liberty of posting the skin of the specimen to you for your study. It is preserved in a keg of spirits with another antipodal beast. I send it to your keeping for the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
I remain your servant, John Hunter, Governor New South Wales
Th omas Bewick looked at the letter closely, pursing his lips. He gingerly unfolded the pages of notes and drawings that spilled from the governor’s weathered envelope, addressed months ago. With each passing moment his surprise increased; this creature was nothing like any animal seen before. What would he write in his next edition of General History of Quadrupeds? What could he possibly say? Th e animal seemed hardly real. Is it a mammal, he mused, or …?
Questions Hunter’s drawings seem unbelievable. Bewick suspects that this is not going to be a simple problem in classifi cation. How should he decide what the creature is? What is the defi nition of a mammal?
. Predict in as much detail as possible exactly what features a mammal would be expected to have. Consider the external as well as internal anatomy of a mammal; list all characteristics you can think of. Indicate which of these are exclusive to mammals and which are found in other vertebrates such as fi sh, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.
An Antipodal Mystery by Clyde Freeman Herreid Department of Biological Sciences University at Buff alo, State University of New York
“An Antipodal Mystery” by Clyde Freeman Herreid Page 2
Part II—”A Three-Fold Nature” “Th e cask containing the two specimens … reached Newcastle late in , transported from quayside to the Society’s rooms by a woman servant. She carried it on her head and, by mischance, the bottom of the cask gave way, dousing her with pungent spirits. But her dismay was reportedly the greater when, looking down, she saw not only the small chunky wombat, but the remains of ‘a strange creature, half bird, half beast, lying at her feet’.”
Th omas Bewick was to write that the creature “seems to be an animal sui generis; it appears to possess a three-fold nature, that of a fi sh, a bird and a quadruped, and is related to nothing that we have hitherto seen.” It was about the size of a “small cat,” with a bill “very similar to that of a duck,” with four short legs,
“the forelegs … shorter than those of the hind and their webs spread considerably beyond the claws.” Bewick concluded “it resisted any attempt to arrange it in any of the useful modes of classifi cation.”
Dr. George Shaw, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Assistant Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum, also obtained a dried specimen in . He wondered if it was a hoax, an animal stitched together by clever Chinese or Japanese taxidermists to deceive credulous sailors. He wrote: “I almost doubted the testimony of my own eyes.” But he could not fi nd any deception.
A specimen found its way into the hands of Professor Johann Blumenbach, a comparative anatomist of the University of Göttingen in Germany, who christened the creature Ornithorynchus paradoxous. “In every way a paradox,” the Australian arrival raised a host of questions. Was it, as its brown fur suggested, a mammal? But where were its mammary glands? Where were its nipples? And how could a young animal suckle with that duckbill? Or was it a reptile, among which amphibians were then grouped, for this beast was surely aquatic? Or perhaps it was avian; its duck-like bill indicated an affi nity with warm-blooded birds. Blumenbach was stumped. Ornithorynchus did not fall into any of the major classes of vertebrates—the mammals, fi sh, birds, and reptiles.
Other specimens were forwarded to the distinguished British anatomist Everard Home at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Th e mystery deepened, for Home made a series of wonderful discoveries published in papers written from –. Th e “duck-bill” beak was an exploratory organ for touching and tasting the muddy bottom of rivers as the animal searched for its food, small crustaceans and insects underwater. Th e beak was not hard like that of a bird; rather it was moist, soft, and highly fl exible. And the reproductive organs were a surprise!
Quesitons . Examine the drawings on the following page showing the reproductive systems of animals. What
conclusions do you make? Which seems most similar to Ornithorynchus? . What does this imply about evolution? . Th ink about how young Ornithorynchus are likely born. Are they born alive (viviparous)? Or are
eggs laid, incubated, and then hatched (oviparous)? Or are eggs produced and then held in the body for a time and then hatched inside the mother as in some snakes (ovoviviparous)? All of these opinions of Ornithorynchus development were fi rmly held by some of the great anatomists of the time.
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Figure 1: Th e female reproductive systems of six vertebrates. All dissections are depicted as if the animal were lying on its back facing the reader. All of the systems are bilaterally symmetrical except for the bird where only the left side is functional; the right side degenerates during development. Th e term cloaca is used for a chamber that receives the contents of the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts. Th e term urogenital sinus is a chamber that receives products from the urinary and reproductive tracts; the digestive tract empties separately via its own fi nal chamber, the rectum (not shown). (Redrawn by Jim Stamos, based on various sources).