The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals
The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals
Think of a platypus: They lay eggs (that hatch into so-called platypups), produce milk without nipples and venom without fangs, and can detect electricity. Or a wombat: Their teeth never stop growing, they poop cubes, and they defend themselves with reinforced rears. And what about antechinuses—tiny marsupial carnivores whose males don’t see their first birthday, as their frenzied sex lives take so much energy that their immune systems fail? Platypuses, possums, wombats, echidnas, devils, kangaroos, quolls, dibblers, dunnarts, kowaris: Australia has some truly astonishing mammals, with incredible, unfamiliar features. But how does the world regard these creatures? And what does that mean for their conservation?
In Platypus Matters, naturalist Jack Ashby shares his love for these often-misunderstood animals. Informed by his own experiences meeting living marsupials and egg-laying mammals during fieldwork in Tasmania and mainland Australia, as well as his work with thousands of zoological specimens collected for museums over the last two-hundred-plus years, Ashby’s tale not only explains historical mysteries and debunks myths (especially about the platypus), but also reveals the toll these myths can take. Ashby makes clear that calling these animals “weird” or “primitive”—or incorrectly implying that Australia is an “evolutionary backwater,” a perception that can be traced back to the country’s colonial history—has undermined conservation: Australia now has the worst mammal extinction rate of any place on Earth. Important, timely, and written with humor and wisdom by a scientist and self-described platypus nerd, this celebration of Australian wildlife will open eyes and change minds about how we contemplate and interact with the natural world—everywhere.
"Keen to overturn the warped, colonial perception that monotremes (e.g. platypuses and echidnas) and marsupials are more primitive than other mammal species, the zoologist author who runs Cambridge's Natural History Museum takes us on a tour of the fauna of Australia in all their glory. In an engaging and entertaining narrative reminiscent of Gerald Durrell, we learn that wombats produce cubic poo, that the platypus played a disruptive role in the narrative of evolution, and much more besides.”
"Ashby reveals marvelous creatures, and the mysteries and myths surrounding them."
"This is a compelling, funny, firsthand account of our wonderfully unique mammals and how our perceptions of them impact their future."
"Ashby has an infectious enthusiasm for Aussie marsupials and monotremes in particular—which, he says, have often been unfairly derided as 'lesser' or 'primitive' in scientific and broader circles. He makes the case that such biases matter: 'The way I see it, the fates of both the people and animals that live in Australia have in large part been determined by the way its wildlife has been presented in the West.'"
"Ashby is particularly indignant that monotremes such as his beloved platypus have been unfairly regarded as 'lesser' or 'primitive' mammals. Challenging this dated, hierarchical view, he points out that they embody how evolution works, combining features found in ancient reptiles with characteristics—such as the detection of electrical signals in prey—almost unheard of in other mammals. He is equally fervent about marsupials. The apparently lumbering wombat is, in fact, a canny killer. If pursued into their burrows they can 'crush would-be attackers with their bums.' Written in a lively, conversational style and drawing on decades of fieldwork, this is a beguiling portrait of our unique fauna."
Sydney Morning Herald
"From platypuses and possums, through wombats, echidnas, devils, and kangaroos, to quolls, dibblers, dunnarts, and kowaris, Ashby knows them all; and in his recently published Platypus Matters, he guides his readers on a tour of their lives, their evolutionary stories, and the challenges they face in the modern world."
The Well-Read Naturalist
“Ashby makes the case that Australia’s wildlife is not a collection of oddities and species that can kill you, as it is most often, even well-meaningly, portrayed. He explores how this traditional narrative about Australia’s native animals arose, how it is incorrect, and why it matters. Some of the species met along the way, including echidnas, wombats, Tasmanian devils, and scaly-tailed possums, leave lovely impressions that will be lasting portrayals. Both serious and fun, Platypus Matters is compelling reading.”
Kristofer M. Helgen, chief scientist and director, Australian Museum Research Institute
“Platypus Matters is an original, charming book with a contemporary message. Ashby seeks to convince us of the importance of Australia’s mammals, using the platypus as a worthy ambassador. Most importantly, with a combination of beguiling stories and impassioned arguments, he explains the very real consequences of devaluing Australian wildlife for the survival of this unique fauna. Ashby’s raw enthusiasm as a naturalist and love of sharing a good anecdote make for entertaining reading, but the final chapters take a sobering turn, and rightly so. His book is a clear call to action to address the urgency of the current extinction crisis. It’s also a bloody good read.”
Katherine Tuft, general manager, Arid Recovery (Australia)
“Timely, important, and multifaceted, Platypus Matters is a lesson in the evolution of mammals, a historical journey, and an adventure book packed with exciting stories of Ashby’s global travels. Most profound is the book’s intellectual exploration of colonial perspectives and how they shaped the world’s understanding of, and subsequent relationship with, Australia’s unique fauna—to this day. Fascinating and enlightening. Only Ashby could have written this book, and I absolutely loved it!”
Georgia Ward-Fear, Macquarie University, cofounder, Cane Toad Coalition
"Fascinating... This is wonderfully dorky stuff...But there’s much more going on here than Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Ashby energetically recounts the stories of a dozen species of Australian animals, their natural histories, and the universally-tragic record of their discovery by, interaction with, and decimation or extermination at the hands of humans. These are largely depressing stories, a long Australian list of ecological travesties that only look more dire when read against the backdrop of the environmental catastrophes stalking the country in the twenty-first century. And although Platypus Matters is a persistently, defiantly upbeat book, downright infused with Ashby’s scientific exuberance, it can’t avoid a touch of the funereal. In Australia as everywhere else, the ecological outlook for all forms of life humans don’t enslave, exploit, or eat is bleak...But considering the wonders at stake, any start is a good start."
Open Letters Review
"Ashby’s spirited tour of the Australian bestiary is not only a convincing defense of his thesis, but a revelation to readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of platypus biology, and unacquainted with nabarleks, dunnarts, and other indigenous Australian fauna... Ashby is not being pedantic in his insistence that Australian fauna do not get enough respect. 'The current narrative,' he maintains, 'hinders environmental conservation.' Thirty-seven percent of all recent mammal extinctions on Earth, he notes, happened in Australia, and the effects of bushfires, aggravated by climate change, augur a perilous future. Hopefully, Ashby’s book of wonders will not only delight, but will also inspire increased efforts to preserve Australia’s wildlife through the perilous decades to come."
Table of Contents
1 Meet the Platypus
2 Diplomatic Platypuses
3 Echidnas: The Other ‘Primitives’
4 The Mystery of the Egg-laying Mammals
6 Terrible with Names
7 Marvelling at Marsupials
9 The Missing Marsupials
10 Copycats and Cover Versions
11 They’re Stuffed
13 Terra Nullius and Colonialism
Afterword: A Call to Arms
About the Author
Ever since I first encountered them as museum specimens at university, platypuses have been my favourite animals. It may seem childish that a grown adult – particularly one that works in science – has a favourite animal, and perhaps it is, but the more I learn about them, the more I am convinced that nothing more wonderful has ever evolved.
Following those undergraduate classes, finding platypuses in the wild shot straight to the top of my zoological to-do list. All zoologists have these biological bucket lists and they typically define how nature-nerds spend their time, working hard to find and observe the animals that fascinate them most.
As well as platypuses, my list also includes species that are relatively widespread and found closer to home. For example, over the years I have spent what adds up to several fruitless weeks sat at the edge of countless British bodies of water failing to see a Eurasian otter (the closest thing we have to a platypus, ecologically speaking), until I finally found one in a stream running through the middle of the town of Frome in Somerset, while teenagers loudly performed donuts in the supermarket parking lot right alongside.
It sometimes feels as though these hard-earned encounters divide one’s life into discrete chunks. ‘Before you were stared down by a family of snow leopards’ and ‘after you were stared down by a family of snow leopards’. At other times, though, these moments can be deeply frustrating: I only know that I have been in the presence of a sloth bear from seeing the two reflective dots of its eyes as it noisily snuffled for fallen fruit in the pitch black beyond the limits of my torch-light. To have continued closer would have been foolish with such an unpredictable and well-clawed animal.
Less dangerous, my first wombat sighting caused me to start shrieking excitedly at the driver on a packed bus as we sped past the animal I had dreamed about seeing for years. She didn’t stop the bus, and I was heartbroken that the encounter was so fleeting. Until, that was, we got off at the next stop and found perhaps fifty wombats wombling around the immediate area. Each moment with a sought-after species becomes burnt into the memory like other significant life events.
For me, the idea of a zoological bucket list isn’t about ticking boxes on an animal bingo card. Working with museum specimens, reading descriptions or watching footage can only go so far in furthering our appreciation for a species. We can never hope to truly know an animal, but to try, nothing beats seeing them – being there with them – on their own terms and in their own environment as they go about their business. An exercise in list-ticking would involve being satisfied by just a single encounter, before moving on to the next species down the list. Instead, finding a ‘passion species’ typically means you want to keep working to see them again.
A year into my first proper job at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London, I had saved enough money for a return flight to Tasmania to search for the first animal to make my list: the platypus.
In our first few days in Tasmania, my friend Toby Nowlan (now a wildlife filmmaker) and I managed to find wombats, Tasmanian devils, quolls (slender, spotted mongoose-like relatives of the Tasmanian devil) and echidnas (platypuses’ spiny ant-eating relatives), but had not set eyes on a platypus. We were walking the Overland Track across the Tasmanian highlands – one of Australia’s great long-distance treks – at the height of summer. This week-long hike takes you through temperate rainforest, buttongrass moors and mountain passes, and via many lakes and streams that are perfect for spotting platypuses.
Unfortunately, the Overland Track in summer is so beautiful that it is also extremely busy. Every evening we would head for the nearest body of water and look for platypuses, only to find that other walkers had made it there first for a relaxing swim, which reduced our chances of success to zero.
Tasmania is famous for its ability to swing rapidly from T-shirt weather to freezing conditions, even in midsummer. On the penultimate leg of the trek – on the day before Christmas Eve – the weather broke for the worse, and it started to snow. The day’s route took us down out of the mountains, descending to the northern tip of leeawulenna, or Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest lake. With the drop in altitude, the snow turned into rain. Torrential, rainforest rain. We were thrilled: with the other walkers sheltering safely in the nearest hut, Toby and I waited for evening and headed to the lake.
As mammals, foraging platypuses must return to the surface to breathe, giving platypus-watchers a few seconds of precious viewing – interspersed with what feel like interminable periods underwater when you fear that they have disappeared into their burrows. Such brief appearances are probably for the best, though, if – like me – you involuntarily stop breathing while they are in sight. Holding one’s breath could be wise, however, as platypuses are extraordinarily sensitive to both movement and sound when at the surface. The tactic for approaching them is like a children’s party game: you creep closer, but if the platypus sees you move, you’re out.
Platypuses are small, so the challenge is to get close enough to get a good look. While they are underwater, you can move and communicate with your fellow watchers as much as you like, because the platypuses’ eyes and ears are closed. But when the platypuses are on the surface you must become a silent statue, or they will disappear. Game over.
Most platypus dives last less than a minute, and Toby and I had agreed our strategy. If either of us spotted one, we would wait for it to dive, and then give ourselves a maximum of thirty seconds to get the other person’s attention while also creeping closer. After that time, we’d have to freeze, remain silent and wait for the platypus to reappear, then repeat the process each time it dived until we were at the nearest point on the shore to the animal.
The payoff for hours of platypus-watching is often just a series of very brief glimpses (they dive around seventy-five times each hour when foraging). As frustrating as that can be, the avid platypus-spotter does also have to recognise that, metabolically, it is very impressive. If I spent a minute underwater, I would certainly need more than ten seconds at the surface before going under for another minute – and I wouldn’t be chewing my dinner in that same, short window. Platypuses have a number of behavioural and physiological adaptations to allow for this: their blood has a high oxygen-carrying capacity; their lungs are large so they can take in a lot of air at once; and they can reduce their heartbeat to as slow as ten beats per minute while diving – whereas they can reach as high as 230 beats per minute at the surface, so this really is a dramatic reduction.
And so there we were, on the bank of a river, close to where it joined the massive lake. I had found the entrance to a burrow near the water’s edge and decided to sit by it and wait. Toby had wandered on downstream towards the lake. An hour passed and I realised that we were no longer in earshot of one another. I know this was selfish, but I thought the one thing worse than not seeing a platypus would be if one of us saw one but the other didn’t. I got up and followed Toby’s tracks.
Through the rain, I heard him calling. I ran. He was on the other side of a marsh by the lake. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he had seen a platypus. In him, joy. In me, terror. What if it didn’t come back? How would our friendship survive that?? Toby pointed – and then it happened. In the freezing, sodden, dying light of 23 December 2005, I saw my first platypus as it surfaced about 30 metres (100 feet) away.
We followed the rules. We froze. We didn’t utter a sound. It’s likely I had tears in my eyes but in the rain, who could tell? We watched. It dived. We ran. It surfaced. We froze. We watched. It dived. We ran. On the third time, it surfaced 1.5 metres (5 feet) away, right in the shallows. We could make out the lighter spots next to its eyes and judge the suppleness of its bill. It dived again. I ran. I moved for my allotted thirty seconds then stopped and waited once more.