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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
'First platypus' still intact
By Brady Haran
BBC News

More pictures and information about the platypus holotype

It may be more than 200 years old, but the story of the "first platypus" is still told in Australian schools.

When European settlers sent back a specimen of this bizarre creature, scientists were baffled and concluded it was probably a fake.

It was only when more examples arrived from "Down Under" that the issue was resolved.

But what happened to that original specimen that so famously bamboozled the experts?

Well it's still intact in a London museum, and in surprisingly good condition.

The first photographs of it were published in an Australian newspaper on Saturday.

The Natural History Museum is understandably protective of the delicate specimen, but recently agreed to photograph it under special conditions.

Because this was the individual used for the first scientific description of a platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), it has become what is called a "holotype" or "type specimen".

George Shaw (copyright Natural History Museum)
It is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal
George Shaw's original description of the platypus
Every creature on Earth has one "type specimen", and it is used as the standard to determine if later discoveries are a new species or sub-species.

Despite its status, the platypus holotype is not typical - mainly because it is so small.

"Actually, it is a juvenile male," explains mammal curator Daphne Hills.

It is perhaps not surprising that a young animal was the first to be caught and shipped to London.

As Ms Hills suggests, "he was probably young, stupid and easy to catch".

The platypus holotype is too valuable to be put on public display.

Instead, it is kept in a sealed box in a cupboard on the third floor of the museum's north-west block, dubbed "The Mammal Tower".

It is a humble resting place for a fascinating piece of Australia's natural history, but it ensures the holotype is protected from changes in temperature or humidity.

Missing skull

There is a bit more to the tale of the "first platypus" - and the clues can be found on a paper tag attached to its right hind leg.

Platypus holotype (copyright Natural History Museum)
The platypus holotype (Image: Natural History Museum)
The platypus was first classified by the museum's acclaimed naturalist George Shaw (the man who was sceptical about its validity).

After that, it became "lost" among other specimens until it was uncovered by another of the museum's legendary figures - Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas.

Oldfield Thomas' notes include an observation that a spur has broken off from one of its feet (all platypuses are born with spurs on their hind feet, but females lose theirs early in life).

And he noted something more significant was missing - the animal's skull.

When type specimens are preserved, it is common to keep skins and skulls together, and Shaw's description from 1799 indicates this was the case with the platypus.

However by the time Oldfield Thomas "re-discovered" the animal, the skull was gone. Its whereabouts are still unknown.

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