The specimens were found in stores at Cambridge’s University Museum of Zoology which assistant director Jack Ashby said was ‘pretty amazing’.
They are the specimens that helped prove Darwin's theory of evolution, yet they have remained lost for 150 years. Now, Cambridge University has uncovered jars of platypuses and echidnas which were pivotal in proving that some mammals can lay eggs, supporting Charles Darwin’s controversial new hypothesis of natural selection and dealing a fatal blow to creationism.
Until Europeans first encountered the creatures in Australia in the 1790s, it had been assumed that all mammals give birth to live young, yet many scientists refused to believe the aberrations were real. With a tail like a beaver, a flat bill, and webbed feet like a duck, when the first platypus specimens were brought to Europe people thought they were fakes that had been sewn together.
“In the 19th-century, many conservative scientists didn’t want to believe that an egg-laying mammal could exist, because this would support the theory of evolution – the idea that one animal group was capable of changing into another,” said Jack Ashby.
“Lizards and frogs lay eggs, so the idea of a mammal laying eggs was dismissed by many people – I think they felt it was degrading to be related to animals that they considered lower life forms.”
To resolve the matter, William Caldwell, a renowned Cambridge scientist, was dispatched to Australia in 1883, funded by the Royal Society and the British Government. The following year, he found an echidna with an egg in her pouch, and a platypus with one egg in her nest and another were just about to be laid.
The news was sent around the world, ending nearly 100 years of debate but the collection was never catalogued by the museum, so until recently staff had been unaware of its existence.
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