Discovery and Naming

According to Aboriginal Dreamtime legend, the first platypus was born after an attractive young female duck mated with a lonely and persuasive water-rat. The duck’s offspring had their mother’s bill and webbed feet and their father’s legs and handsome brown fur.

Early written records suggest that indigenous people were aware that the platypus was both egg-laying and venomous facts that were only confirmed by European scientists after many decades of study. Traditional names for the species included “mallangong” and “tambreet” in New South Wales. Among the Wurundjeri people (who occupied much of Victoria) the name for the platypus was dulaiwarrung. Platypuses were hunted for food in the water using long spears, but the meat appears not to have been highly prized.

After the British colony in Australia was founded in 1788, the strange appearance of the platypus soon fascinated the new arrivals. Early colonists called the platypus a “water mole” or a duckbill.

The platypus was first scientifically described by Dr George Shaw in Britain in 1799. His initial reaction to the first specimen was that it was an elaborate hoax. It was not uncommon at the time for exotic forgeries (such as mermaids made by joining the torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish) to be brought back to Europe from far-flung parts of the world. Shaw was so convinced that the platypus specimen had been fabricated that he took a pair of scissors to the pelt, expecting to find stitches attaching the bill to the skin.

Dr Shaw named the species Platypus anatinus from Greek and Latin words respectively meaning “flat-footed” and “duck-like”. A German scientist named Blumenbach independently proposed a different scientific name in the following year, Ornithorhynchus paradoxus, with the first word meaning “bird-like snout” and the second meaning “puzzling”.

It then transpired that the term Platypus had previously been used in 1793 to name a group of beetles. Accordingly, a different scientific name had to be formulated. This was achieved by combining the names suggested by Shaw and Blumenbach to produce Ornithorhynchus anatinus, which remains the official designation of the species today.

In the meantime, the abandoned scientific name “platypus” became the accepted common name for the species.

Given that the word platypus is derived from Greek, its plural form should (strictly speaking) be platypodes and definitely not platypi (which would be valid only if platypus were derived from Latin). However, given that platypus has now entered the English language as the common name for the species, the accepted plural is either platypuses or platypus. (Note: for the sake of simplicity, platypus will be used as both singular and plural forms throughout this document.)

Cats raise kittens; lions raise cubs. In contrast, there is no well established term in the English language for a juvenile platypus. This presumably reflects fact that when a young platypus first emerges from its natal burrow it basically looks like a small adult. As juveniles are not normally seen by people at an earlier stage of development, there has never been a need to adopt a special term for a baby platypus.

It has been suggested by staff working at Taronga Zoo in Sydney that puggle might be used. This word reputedly has had a reasonably long history of use to denote a baby echidna. However, as young platypus and echidnas look very different once they begin to grow up, the use of this term to denote a platypus is considered inappropriate by biologists who work with the species in the wild.

By the same token, there is no collective noun – equivalent to a school of fish or herd of cattle – which applies to the platypus. Platypus are fundamentally solitary in their habits, though more than one individual can sometimes be seen feeding at a given spot. Accordingly, there has never been a need to refer to these animals as a social unit.

Further reading:

Burrell, H. (1927). The Platypus. (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, reprinted in 1974 by Rigby: Adelaide).

Moyal, A. (2001). Platypus – The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World. (Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW).