Sir David Attenborough on Platypus

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities Producer Stephen Dunleavy interviews Sir David regarding his exciting new natural history series, exclusive to Eden.


Stephen Dunleavy

"What I found extraordinary about the platypus is that it really was the animal that engaged the greatest minds of the 19th century. But it really was the creature that really caused fascination for you, wasn't it?"

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities

Sir David Attenborough

"It was discovered just before Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection - but the basis for the evolutionary theory of course is that life is one, all life is related, one kind of animal evolved to produce another kind of animal and so on. So that fish gave rise to amphibians, and amphibians gave rise to reptiles, and reptiles gave rise to birds and to mammals. Then at the height of the argument as to whether this happened, suddenly, it was discovered in Australia; this extraordinary animal that had a beak like a bird and fur like a rabbit, and the question was “is it a mammal or is it a reptile?” and one of the keys to that question was thought to be whether or not it laid eggs. And they did discover, while this investigation was going on, that not only did it have fur, but the young baby platypus, according to the aboriginal people, sucked milk which was excreted from its mother’s fur.

Now, the learned gentlemen, particularly Richard Owen who was the director of the Natural History Museum in the 19th century said “this is impossible. How could an animal with a beak possibly suck its mother’s teat?” Physically, it couldn't do it. But eventually they found small baby platypuses that were just newly born, and then they don’t have a real beak at all.

But in the Natural History Museum, this is in the middle of the 19th century, there were constantly fabricated animals that were hoaxes, fabricated mermaids for example, which were actually made in the Far East somewhere and were put forward as true mermaids. And London Natural History Museum said “this is a fake!” They had the first skin that arrived here, the very first, which wouldn't tell you whether it laid eggs or not. But, this is a great privilege; I was given allowed to handle the very specimen the very first one that arrived from Australia to Europe Dr Shaw did his investigation on! What he wanted to see was had the ducks beak been attached on in some particular way, to the skin of something like a rabbit. You can see he had a go at this with a scalpel; he’d had a go at trying to cut it to see if there were threads, and eventually he had to conclude that there was this creature with a beak like a duck and the fur of a rabbit!

This extraordinary animal had a beak like a bird and fur like a rabbit, and the question was “is it a mammal or is it a reptile?”

Actually, the resemblance of the beak to a ducks beak is only superficial. The function of the beak, which has only recently been discovered, is more extraordinary. The ducks beak, of course, is just to rub up vegetation. But the platypus doesn't feed on vegetation, it feeds on shrimp-like yabbies, and the flat beak is covered in little sensory spots that transmit signals and the platypus swims through the water just like someone searching through a field with and electrical sensor and it can receive tiny little electrical signals given off by every living organism, which is particularly easy when under water. It actually receives the electrical signals with its beak, which is its electro-receptor and it grabs out to get its food."

Next: Attenborough on Zebra