When British scientists first laid eyes on the platypus in the late 18th century, some of them thought the specimen — sent back from its native Australia — must be a hoax. "It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means," English zoologist George Shaw wrote in 1799.
Shaw was the first to publish a scientific description of what turned out to be a very real creature.
Reading what he wrote more than 200 years ago, it's easy to see why Shaw was initially skeptical about the creature he'd examined: "Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped."
In other words: The creature's beak perfectly resembled that of a duck, and the body seemed awfully close to that of an otter or beaver. It was plausible, Shaw thought, that some punk had collected the bill of a duck and an otter or mole's body, then shipped it off from Australia as a joke.
It was only with "the most minute and rigid examination," Shaw wrote, that "we can persuade ourselves of it being the real beak and snout of a quadruped." Based on the specimen, Shaw guessed that "it must be resident in watery situations," noting its bill and webbed feet. He also guessed that the creature "has the habits of digging or burrowing in the banks of rivers, or under ground; and that its food consists of aquatic plants and animals. This is all that can at present be reasonably guessed at."
Shaw also produced the first published illustration of the platypus, based in part on a then-unpublished sketch from New South Wales governor John Hunter:
Shaw's rather accurate description of the creature is kind of remarkable, given that the specimen he was given to examine was hardly pristine. He was sent a "dried skin with a desiccated and hardened 'bill' so unlike the soft, flexible bill of the living animal," biologist Brian K. Hall wrote in a great 1999 BioScience article that outlined the lengthy debate over the platypus.
Shaw had only one theory of several about the animal, as Hall notes:
"Ornithorhynchus greatly puzzled and agitated naturalists of the day. Was it a mammal, as Shaw thought? Did it represent a new group of animals? Could it be a “missing link” between two well-known groups, especially between reptiles and mammals? Did it represent a new class of vertebrates, as the French anatomist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire maintained? Or was it a hoax, as many suspected and as Shaw himself wondered, even as he wrote the initial description? Did the females lay eggs, as birds and many reptiles do? Or did they give birth to live young, as mammals do?"
It wasn't easy to decide what to make of this creature, especially as the descriptions of its behavior and characteristics grew more seemingly bizarre to researchers halfway around the globe.
As Hall notes, anatomist Robert Knox argued in 1823 that skepticism of the platypus came from an existing skepticism of "eastern" countries, through which the early platypus samples passed on their way back to England:
"They reached England by vessels which had navigated the Indian seas, a circumstance in itself sufficient to rouse the suspicions of the scientific naturalist, aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers; in short, the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art; but these conjectures were immediately dispelled by an appeal to anatomy."
(In case you recognized the name: Yes, the Robert Knox quoted above is that Robert Knox, an infamous buyer of human remains.)
It took nearly a century for scientists to figure out for certain whether the platypus laid eggs, Hall adds, even though Aboriginal Australian tribes had known that for ages, along with the fact that the males of the species are venomous (another point of debate among Western experts).
The drive to settle the egg question at one point seemed to pose a threat to the existence of the platypus as a species, as the Australian Museum's first curator George Bennett wrote in 1860:
"Unless the hand of man be stayed from their destruction, the Ornithorhynchus and the Echidna, the Emeu and the Megapodius, like the Dodo, Moa and Notornis, will shortly exist only in the pages of the naturalist."
Bennett spent much of his study of the platypus devoted to disproving the idea that the creature laid eggs, Hall writes.
Two hundred years after its first encounter with Western scientists, a genome analysis helped to unravel more questions surrounding how the platypus came to be: researchers determined, for instance, that venomous reptiles and the venomous male platypus developed the characteristic independently of each other, but from the same set of genes.
MORE READING: First ever evidence of a swimming, shark-eating dinosaur