A platypusian tale of a raunchy rat and a promiscuous duck

A science story is doing the rounds today based on a new paper:

No living mammal is more peculiar than the platypus. It has a broad, duck-like bill, thick, otter-like fur, and webbed, beaver-like feet. The platypus lays eggs rather than gives birth to live young, its snout is covered with electroreceptors that detect underwater prey, and male platypuses have a venomous spur on their hind foot. Until recently, the fossil record indicated that the platypus lineage was unique, with only one species inhabiting the Earth at any one time. This picture has changed with the publication of a new study in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology that describes a new, giant species of extinct platypus that was a side-branch of the platypus family tree.

The new platypus species, named Obdurodon tharalkooschild, is based on a single tooth from the famous Riversleigh World Heritage Area of northwest Queensland. While many of Riversleigh’s fossil deposits are now being radiometrically dated, the precise age of the particular deposit that produced this giant platypus is in doubt but is likely to be between 15 and 5 million years old.

File:Platypus BrokenRiver QLD Australia2.png

Platypus BrokenRiver QLD Australia Wikimedia

But what I found far more interesting was the story from the Aborigine Dreamtime which is so much more attractive than any evolutionary history of this strange animal. The Dreamtime sounds fascinating – a kind of Brigadoon.

In the Dreamtime, Tharalkoo was a headstrong female duck who disobeyed her parents’ warnings not to swim downriver where Bigoon the water-rat could catch her and have his wicked way with her. Like anyone who disobeys their parents in a fairy story, things turn out exactly as they said they would and Tharalkoo is ravished by Bigoon. When she returns home, the other female ducks are all laying eggs, so she does the same. But instead of a baby duckling, Tharalkoo’s child is a chimera with the bill and webbed hind feet of a duck and the fur and front feet of a rodent – a platypus.

It is not hard to read between the lines that Tharalkoo had promiscuous tendencies and that Bigoon was the swaggering young tough who was the local heartthrob. Unlike Juliet, Tharalkoo got to having her offspring – which has since prospered. Presumably Bigoon fathered others for Tharalkoo’s child to mate with. What else Bigoon got up to and how he came to meet a nasty end (and there can be no doubt that he must have come to a nasty end) is unknown.

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