Australian scientists say they’ve found the fossil of a new species of giant platypus that walked the Earth between 5 and 15 million years ago.
Up until now, the fossil record of the platypus indicated that only one species of the animal lived on Earth at any one time. The new study suggests this new extinct giant platypus species, called Obdurodon tharalkooschild, is a side-branch of the platypus family, rather than its direct ancestor.
The platypus is a mammal with a duck-like bill, thick fur that’s much like an otter’s, and a tail similar to a beaver’s. It has webbed feet and reproduces by laying eggs rather than giving birth like other mammals.
The animal was so odd that in 1798 when Captain John Hunter, then the governor of New South Wales, Australia, sent a pelt of a platypus along a sketch of the animal to scientists in Great Britain, the British researchers at first thought it was a joke or a hoax.
The Australian researchers were able to identify this new species of platypus from a single fossilized tooth found in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area of northwest Queensland, Australia.
“Monotremes (platypuses and echidnas) are the last remnant of an ancient radiation of mammals unique to the southern continents,” said Rebecca Pian, lead author of the study. “A new platypus species, even one that is highly incomplete, is a very important aid in developing understanding about these fascinating mammals.”
The fossilized tooth’s size leads researchers to believe this ancient platypus was about a meter in length, two times the length of today’s platypus. Today, the male platypus grows to a length of about 50 cm while females grow to about 43 cm in length.
“Like other platypuses, it was probably a mostly aquatic mammal and would have lived in and around the freshwater pools in the forests that covered the Riversleigh area millions of years ago,” said Dr. Suzanne Hand of the University of New South Wales, a co-author of the study.
The ancient Obdurodon tharalkooschild was able to eat its prey with a set of well-developed teeth, unlike today’s platypus which has horny pads in its mouth instead.
The extinct platypus probably ate a varied menu that included not only crayfish and other freshwater crustaceans, but also small vertebrates such as lungfish, frogs, and small turtles.
The researchers named the prehistoric animal Obdurodon, Greek for “lasting (obdurate) tooth,” because its teeth are unlike today’s platypus species. Tharalkooschild was given in honor of a story told by Indigenous Australians about the creation and origin of the platypus.