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Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World Hardcover – July 17, 2001


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Books; First Edition edition (July 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560989777
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560989776
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.4 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #304,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Consider the platypus, that curious Australian creature that seems neither fish nor reptile nor mammal, but that has characteristics seemingly borrowed from all over the animal kingdom. Charles Darwin certainly considered it, puzzling over the platypus in the light of the rest of the world's creatures, and remarking, "Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work."

Australian historian of science Ann Moyal offers plenty of natural-historical information on the platypus in this slender, enjoyable book. What's more, she examines the sometimes shocked reactions the platypus inspired in European naturalists when they first saw specimens of the creature at the dawn of the 19th century. For, Moyal writes, the platypus almost single-handedly (or, perhaps better, single-web-footedly) overturned the prevailing classification of animals according to great-chain-of-being models; with its hodgepodge of physical traits and behaviors, it offered "an unexpected bridge between the categories of mammal/quadruped and reptiles and birds." That bridge helped set evolutionary theory on a new course; as Moyal writes, the platypus played an explicit role in Charles Darwin's ideas on isolation, species diversity, and natural selection, and he branded it a prime example of a "living fossil" that had managed to find an unoccupied ecological niche and live, relatively undisturbed, while fellow creatures marched toward extinction.

Scientists continue to study the platypus, Moyal writes in closing, for its remarkable traits, including a seeming sixth sense that helps it locate its prey in the underwater darkness. Her graceful book sheds new light on the history of biology and ought to earn Ornithorhynchus anatinus many new admirers. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Everyone knows the platypus looks bizarre: its duck's beak, webbed feet, fur, swimming skills, secretive lifestyle and egg-laying talents combine to make the Australian mammal an object of fascination for would-be observers around the globe. Yet few of the monotreme's admirers have seen one in the wild; fewer still know the key roles platypuses have played in theories of evolution and in European concepts of Aussie life. Moyal a historian of science based in Canberra, Australia sets out to tell us all this and more in a cleanly written tome combining scientific curiosities with narrative history. Naturalists from Napoleonic France visited New Holland (Australia) in 1801, carrying wombats, emus and a platypus back to Paris, where astonished Europeans had trouble believing their eyes. Early 19th-century thinkers tried to arrange all the creatures they knew into a "Chain of Being," reflecting divine creation. The egg-laying, warm-blooded platypus and echidna (and their distant cousins, the marsupials) confounded all existing models, and hence sparked intense debate: did these critters really lay eggs? A "scattered company of amateur naturalists" tried hard for answers: the intrepid George Bennett, and later his son, found them, with consequences for the future of biology. Moyal's accessible account integrates this story with others: how was European racism bad for the duck-billed mammal? Who learned how to keep a captive platypus alive? And why, in the midst of World War II, did Australians take great pains to send a live one to Winston Churchill? Readers who care about Darwin and his successors, and readers who simply dig exotic animals, should enjoy Moyal's work: folks who belong in both categories won't be able to put it down. (Sept.)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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The prose is smooth and highly readable.
J. Hundley
If you have a family member that loves an animal, books are definitely the way to go.
therabbit86ed
I probably learnt as much about science as I did about the platypus.
LDN

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By LDN on August 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Ann Moyal's portrait of the evolution of science with the Platypus as the centrefold was richly rewarding. The detail is a blessing as is the easy description of scientific terminology. I probably learnt as much about science as I did about the platypus. Complaints ? I don't read fiction so I love this stuff and it was too short. C'mon Ann, what's next ? *****
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By R. L. Nydam on September 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Ann Moyal's "Platypus" is really two stories in one. As the tital suggests one of those stories is the history of the scientific struggle to understand an animal originally thought to be a chimaera and hoax. The second story is that of the people, preconceptions, and politics surrounding the science of natural history in the decades preceding and immediately following the Darwinian revolution of scientific thought. Moyal, through the narrow lens of a platypus-centralized story tells of the struggles, missteps and transformation of western science from franco/clerical to anglo-colonial/secular domination, and finally to the global excersise it has become today. It is fascinating that many of the greatest names in 18th and 19th century science (Cuvier, Meckel, Home, Geoffrey St-Hilaire, Owen, Darwin) all studied to some degree the anatomy and biology of the platypus!

The difficulties in studying the platypus are recreated in the pattern and pace of Moyal's prose. The overall progression of the book is temporal, but the chapters focus on the individuals and many of the chapters begin by backtracking in time to follow the story of another player in the story. This allows Moyal to explore each portion of the story she is telling as a series of mini-biographies, but requires diligence on the part of the reader to keep maintain an orderly timeline.

What was even more suprising is the size of the book, 15 chapters covering 205 pages (in an 5 in. X 8 in. format) with glossary (incomplete, but good for non-scientists), references, and index bringing the total to 226 pages. Out of the box my first impression was that is was too short.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The platypus is such a quiet and secretive creature, it is hard now to comprehend that during the nineteenth century it created a firestorm of controversy, or at least as much of a firestorm as academic biology endures. The extent of the controversy, and the history of science's dealings with the strange creature, are the subjects of _Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World_ (Smithsonian Institution Press) by Ann Moyal. If you know little about the creature, you can learn plenty here, but more important is the story of how humans attempted to capture, understand, and classify the animal and how it came to play a role in the great debate over evolution.
The platypus was such an oddity that at first no one believed it could actually exist. With an animal that was an amphibian quadruped with webbed feet, fur, and the beak of a duck, it is not surprising that some suspected a hoax. Central to classifying the platypus were the two questions concerning reproduction: did it produce live young, and did it produce milk for them? Richard Owen, the most influential naturalist before Darwin and who had an encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy of many species, was able to confirm the stories that the reclusive platypus did suckle its young, but the question of birth proved more troublesome. The obvious way to settle such a question would be to find a platypus home and see, but the retiring and removed nature of the creature prevented this for decades. Instead of suspending judgement on the question until this could be done, naturalists formed ranks on different sides, and argued over the issue in what seems now a useless and puzzling manner.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The humble platypus, which few have seen in the wild, created more biological debate in the 19th century than any other animal. In the 20th century, observations led to startling new findings about how the platypus reflects advanced evolutionary development.
When I went to Australia, the platypus was on my most-hoped-to-see list. Fortunately, there was a nice habitat in the Sydney zoo that helped me to learn more about them. The platypus uses burrows as its land home, but spends a lot of time in the water. The platypus can consume half its weight a day in live food. To locate that much food, it relies on an advanced electrolocation method involving its duck-like bill. This method is more effective than the sonar-like methods used by other animals.
Well, what is a platypus? First, you notice the duck-like bill. Perhaps a bird? Second, you notice the fur. Perhaps a mammal? Third, you see the webbed feet. Back to bird? Fourth, close examination shows that the platypus has mammary glands. Mammal? Fifth, the platypus lays eggs that are like those of reptiles. Reptile?
These days, the view is that the platypus is a mammal that lays eggs, along with the echidna. But both animals confounded 19th century naturalists before Darwin when Divine Creation was the dominant theory of evolution. Elaborate classification schemes had been developed that traced everything into one neat family or another. The platypus did not fit.
The first specimens were sent back pickled in alcohol to England and later to France, where dissection sparked a continuing debate about whether or not the platypus had mammary glands and whether or not their young could suckle. How the young were born was a complete mystery.
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