Early woodcut of a platypus
In 1799 the naturalist George Shaw, Keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, received a truly bizarre animal specimen from Captain John Hunter in Australia. It appeared to be the bill of a duck attached to the skin of a mole. Shaw dutifully examined the specimen and wrote up a description of it in a scientific journal known as the Naturalist's Miscellany
, but he couldn't help confessing that it was "impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure."
Despite Shaw's doubts about the reality of the animal, he gave it a name: Platypus anatinus
, or flatfoot duck. The scientific name was later changed to Ornithorhynchus anatinus
, but it popularly remained known as the Duckbilled Platypus.
A duckbilled platypus in the wild
Other naturalists were equally suspicious that the creature was just a hoax. The surgeon Robert Knox later explained that because the specimens arrived in England via the Indian Ocean, naturalists suspected that Chinese sailors, who were well known for their skill at stitching together hybrid creatures, might have been playing some kind of joke upon them. (See the Feejee Mermaid
hoax.) "Aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers," Knox noted, "the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art."
It was only when more platypus specimens arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly, granted that the creature was real. This made the platypus one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all.
Duckbilled Platypus Haiku (Submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
The bizarre creature
In the river must be miffed,
'Cause he isn't real
With duck-bill that doesn't quack
(Man that is so wack!)
Links and References
- Ann Moyal (2002). Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World. Allen & Unwin.
- Ritvo, Harriet . The Platypus and the Mermaid: and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. Harvard University Press. 1997.