In 1799, the first platypus specimen arrived in England from its faraway penal colony of Australia. The odd creature fit none of the accepted categories through which European scientists had been classifying nature since the Enlightenment. With its webbed feet, duck-like bill, and thick fur, it was neither fish nor fowl - yet not clearly a mammal, either. Questions about its method of reproduction - whether the young were born live or hatched from eggs - would persist for nearly a century.
"No animal, indeed, was to rub more strenuously up against the prevailing taxonomic categories than the paradoxical platypus," Ann Moyal writes in this small, engaging book. In recounting the story of how the platypus was studied and eventually classified, Moyal, an Australian historian of science, explains that it became entangled in broader debates over taxonomy and evolution among the wise men of European science.
Eminent 19th-century scientists like Richard Owen and Geoffroy St-Hilaire tried to shoehorn the platypus into their grand theories, but with mixed success. Even Charles Darwin was fascinated by the little animal, which seemed to support his findings on evolutionary fitness and speciation. But researchers conducting extensive fieldwork in Australia would eventually come up with the real goods, uncovering the reproductive mysteries of this reclusive creature.
Though a living link to the reptilian ancestry of modern mammals, the platypus is no anachronism, concludes Moyal. Rather, it is a branch of the evolutionary tree that grew marvelously on its own, most interestingly, through the use of sensitive electro-receptors on its bill to find food in murky river waters.
Something that does seem anachronistic today, in a world of vanishing biodiversity, is the idea of amassing dead creatures for the systematizing obsession of Victorian science. As a historical case study, "Platypus" does not take up this issue. But Moyal mentions, for instance, a French scientific voyage ending in 1803 that brought back more than 100,000 preserved specimens from the ends of the earth for dissection and study. Such expeditions were very much of a time when nature was considered illimitable and impervious to human influences.
Today, thanks to legal protections, the platypus has rebounded from severe population losses due to over-hunting. Australians "have adopted the little animal as their talisman." But around the globe, other species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Science is itself evolving - from purely disinterested observation toward research and advocacy that pushes us to care for the earth. This elegantly illustrated book opens the mind to one of its most unique treasures.
Jonathan Cook is a freelance writer in New York City.