What is the longest living thing

A "thing" from another world

England, the year is 1798. Another ship has arrived from the British colony of New Holland - today's Australia. Not exactly unusual, because there is a lot of traffic between motherland England and the relatively new overseas territories. Convicts and settlers pour into the country "down under", in return, precious woods and other natural products, but also exotic creatures come to England. It is no longer a secret among scientists that Australia has a unique flora and fauna.

Platypus: Real or Fake? © John Gould: The Mammals of Australia / public domain (historical)

This time, however, the ship has a cargo on board that will later turn out to be a very special scientific sensation. It is the remains of an animal that was newly discovered in what is now the Australian state of New South Wales - allegedly. But skepticism seems appropriate, because the living being has a grotesque appearance: duck bill, beaver tail, mammal fur. Anyone who sees it will immediately guess a fake. This is partly because the animal did not arrive in Europe alive, only its hide, a peeled skin with hair and body appendages. There are also a few simple sketches that show it in its living space.

Real or "fake"?

The researcher George Shaw from the Department of Natural History in the British Museum in London is also taken aback at the sight of the bellows. He has dealt with the animal world of Australia for years and is used to a lot when it comes to unusual creatures. But this one is completely out of the ordinary. For this reason, he too does not initially consider it a new species, but rather an artistic being put together by resourceful taxidermists.

Only after careful examination did he change his mind and in 1799 set about the scientific description of the new species. After some back and forth among the animal systematists, it was finally given the name platypus or Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Other platypus relics arriving in England over time later support Shaw's assessment: The strange thing from another world is real.

The professional world is enthusiastic about the previously unknown inhabitant of the earth. Researchers and other people interested in nature also come up with the most astonishing theories about its position in the animal kingdom and its origins. However, the topic of evolution does not play a role, the time is not yet ripe for it. Charles Darwin is not yet alive, his theses on evolution and his main work “On the Origin of Species” appear only 60 years later.

Discussions without end

Some therefore consider the platypus to be a “crazy whim of nature”, others to be the result of “promiscuous intercourse between the different animal sexes”. None of these speculations have any hand and foot, because initially we know far too little about the Australian animal, about its appearance and lifestyle. Nonetheless, questions such as “Are platypus mammals or reptiles?” And “Do they lay eggs or do they give birth to live young?” Will be debated extensively and fiercely in the next few decades - albeit without resounding success.

In his Thierleben, published in 1883, the German zoologist and writer Alfred Brehm sums up the alleged knowledge of platypus as follows: “Finally the tireless researcher [meaning the zoologist George Bennett, who visited Australia several times in the mid-19th century] succeeded in building a building with three boys discovering which are about 5 centim. were long. Nowhere was anything found to suggest that the young came from eggs and that the eggs were carried away by the old. There was no longer any doubt that the beak beast gave birth to living young. Bennett does not believe that the natives have ever seen the mother suckling, so he apologizes for her false account of the egg-laying. "

But Bennet and therefore Brehm were wrong - and completely wrong. Of course we have known that for a long time now.

Dieter Lohmann
Status: 09/30/2011

September 30, 2011