You thought wrong about Australian mammals

A platypus held by a human in an Australian zoo.

A platypus at Taronga Zoo in Australia.
Photo: Marc Metcalfe (Getty Images)

Eight-six years ago today, the last known thylacine died in a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. To commemorate the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger, as it is commonly known, September 7 is now national endangered species day in Australia, a day to celebrate Australia’s remarkable wildlife and reflect on how best to conserve it.

And there’s an abundance of Australian wildlife that needs to be conserved. From the striped numbat and the long-eared bilby to the duck-billed platypus and spiny echidna, there are a host of beasts dwindling in number. Billions of animals have been killed or injured in the devastating bushfires of 2019-2020not to mention animals hunted to extinction and threatened by invasive species.

I recently spoke with Jack Ashby, Deputy Director of the Cambridge Zoology Museum, to find out more about his new book, Platypus Questionswhich delves into perceptions of Australian mammals and where those insights come from. Below is my conversation with Ashby, slightly edited for clarity.

Isaac Schultz, Gizmodo: Tell me a bit about your work as a zoologist.

Jack Ashby: I’m responsible for the team that cares for about 2 million specimens here, and also for how people experience and enjoy the museum and what they see when they get here. On top of that, I’m doing a research fellowship in the UK, studying the colonial history of Australian mammals at Cambridge. We have a really amazing collection of Australian mammals here and I’m investigating how it all got to Cambridge, who was involved in collecting it, and what some disturbing typical colonial stories might be of how things happen in museums, but also discovering Indigenous collectors who have made great contributions to the history of science that have hitherto been largely ignored.

One thing we found, researching the book Platypus Questions, is this collection of platypus and echidnas that I had hoped existed in the collection but no one knew they were there. It was the specimens that ultimately proved that platypus laid eggs, which was one of the greatest controversies in 19th century science. The idea that something looked like a mammal, which itself was controversial, but something looked like a mammal, could do something “primitive”, reptilian, like lay eggs. And it took about 90 years to finally settle it.

Thing : What is your favorite Australian experience? As well as seeing a platypus for the first time, which I know was an amazing experience.

Ashby: I’d say there’s nothing more or inspiring than looking into a Tasmanian Devil’s pouch and seeing those four mango-sized baby demons staring at you. Just the experience of looking at a devil in this very intimate way.

The cover of Platypus Matters shows a platypus swimming in a body of water.

Ashby’s new book, recently published in the United States.
Image: Jack Ashby

Gizmodo: In collecting work, I’m sure more often than people realize, you find things lurking right under your nose.

Ashby: The problem is that we have 2 million specimens that have been collected over 200 years and computers have been around for 30 years. Decades of backlogs, you know, any major museum has the same problem you can imagine. But I think people are surprised that you can’t actually list everything in your collection.

Thing : What inspired this book?

Ashby: My absolute passion is Australian mammals and their natural history. I think they are the best animals that have ever evolved. I wrote it because I realized the world didn’t look at Australian animals the same way I did.

There are incredible stories to be told about their natural history, but they are consistently painted in a certain way that we have been conditioned to write about them. And so just about every news report, magazine article, museum exhibit, documentary will describe them as weird and wonderful, or bizarre or primitive. I just want to dig deeper into where all of these tropes come from and explain that it’s not a great way to look at an animal. And primitive has no scientific meaning. No living species can be primitive, and bizarre is a biased value judgment.

Not only is that unfair because they’re the best animals (which is also a biased value judgment, I admit), but Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world, of any species that extinct since 1788. Of all the mammals that have gone extinct in the world since 1788 when Australia was invaded, 37% have occurred in Australia. That’s more than anywhere in the world in a single country. It has lost 10% of its fauna and much of what remains is greatly diminished.

I don’t think it helps to call them weird. I think it encourages people to think about the primitive idea – that they’re nothing more than weird little evolutionary oddities that are somehow biologically determined to die out. I wrote the book to try to set the record straight on these things and mostly to celebrate how awesome they are.

Thing : I think some people reading this might be surprised to hear about how quickly Australia’s wildlife has disappeared. Why do you think the harsh reality is so often ignored?

Ashby: There are a few really famous species in Australia. But most people, including Australians, don’t know about most mammals in Australia, you know, antechinus, dunnarts, planigales, kowaris, kalutas and even quolls are all really unknown species. All of these names are all Australian carnivorous marsupials. But there’s just this idea that there’s some kind of kangaroo. There is a kind of wallaby, a kind of opossum. But there are 70 species of wallaby and kangaroo, there are 70 species of opossum. This diversity is really badly known in general.

A thylacine in a cage, taken shortly before the animal went extinct.

The thylacine, a marsupial predator led to extinction by humans.
Photo: Thematic News Agency/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Thing : You put the platypus at the center of your book. I understand it’s your favorite animal. Why the title?

Ashby: Just to emphasize that these stories are important, the way we talked about Australian mammals, platypus in particular because they are not only ‘weird’ and ‘wonderful’ but ‘primitive’, had societal repercussions and ecologically important. effects.

The way Australian wildlife was described by European settlers and scientists in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries closely parallels the way Indigenous Australians were described. And portraying them both collectively as uncivilized, primitive, and somehow inferior helped oil the colonial machine and justified invasion. It’s not just “here’s some cool animals,” but how we’ve been talking about it has had fundamental impacts across the country.

Thing : What better way to talk about these animals?

Ashby: The simplest answer is, let’s stick with “wonderful” rather than “weird and wonderful”. If the platypus had evolved in America or Europe, I would have a hard time believing people describe them as primitive or weird. They would say it is an incredibly adapted, venomous, electro-receptive transformer of an animal. It’s just about celebrating them as amazing, highly adapted species and talking about their natural history.

It’s easy to get excited about any of these animals, and I’m certainly not the only one who talks enthusiastically about the wonders of the platypus. But I think it’s just to ditch all those tropes of, you know, “Australian mammals are stupid.” That these are some kind of forgotten animals, flashbacks in time, that Australia is an evolving backwater. Get rid of one of these tropes and talk about it like you would any other animal from any other part of the world.

More: ‘De-extinction’ firm says it will bring back Tasmanian tiger

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