Reconstruction by Peter Schouten
Published November 4, 2013
What's cooler than a venomous, duck-billed mammal that lays eggs? A giant one—and that's just what researchers have found.
A newly discovered species of three-foot-long (one-meter-long) platypus, dubbed Obdurodon tharalkooschild, swam through freshwater pools in Australian forests about 5 to 15 million years ago, according to a new study. That's a much bigger critter than a modern-day platypus, which at 15 inches (38 centimeters) long is about the size of a small domestic cat.
The limestone fossils were stowed in a cupboard and forgotten until study leader Rebecca Pian, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University in New York City, pulled them out in 2012 while studying at Australia's University of New South Wales.
One tooth struck her as odd: It was bigger than any known platypus tooth. After closer study, "I said, 'Wait a second, not only is it quite big, it's quite different as well,'" Pian remembers. When she showed it to study co-author Mike Archer, he immediately agreed it was new.
For instance, the tooth clearly had the unique shape known to belong only to platypus teeth. But it also had bumps and ridges never before seen in the group. To estimate the size of the animal the tooth came from, Pian and colleagues compared the tooth with other platypus teeth and made a rough extrapolation of the size of the new species.
It was bigger than any platypus known before. The team had just shaken up platypus evolution.
Filling in the Gaps
The ancient platypus belongs to a tiny group of egg-laying mammals called monotremes, of which only three modern species remain: the platypus and two species of echidna, all of which are found in Australia and New Guinea. (See "Platypus Genome Reveals Secrets of Mammal Evolution.")
Only four extinct platypus species have been discovered, each in different periods of time, leading scientists to believe that either there are huge gaps in the fossil record or the platypus family tree is simply not very diverse. Part of the problem is that most of the time, only the teeth with their hardy enamel survive the wear and tear of time.
Now, with the discovery of O. tharalkooschild, researchers know that "the evolution of the platypus is potentially more complicated than we thought," said Pian, whose study was published in the November issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
That's because its larger size and possibly more carnivorous teeth suggest it had a different diet from other platypuses—which mostly eat soft invertebrates—possibly taking on bigger prey such as frogs, Pian said. Such a hearty diet may have also been why the newfound platypus was so big, she added.
The fact that the ancient species had such a big tooth was surprising, since older platypus fossils have suggested they evolved smaller and fewer teeth over time. Today's platypus, for example, only has teeth as a youngster. Later in life, an adult chews its soft prey using horny pads in its mouth. (Watch a video about platypus evolution.)
It's even possible the new fossil platypus was part of a now-extinct side branch of the main platypus lineage.
"This seems like a solid piece of research—if I'd found it, I'd have given it a new name as well," noted Timothy Rowe, director of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin.
Platypus teeth are so "exceedingly unique" that it's clear the new tooth is from a platypus, added Rowe, who wasn't involved in the new study.
The paleontologist also said the finding reinforces that "we don't really know" a lot about the evolution of platypuses and echidna.
But, he said, "we're starting to fill in some of the gaps, and that's always a happy thing."
hey Grace H I am doing this for a current event also thats boss!! sorry guys im kinda hyped this is so cool and im in a good part in my book ......... i am SUCH A NERD
wow very cool. are there any follow up studies? It'd be great if National Geographic posted relevant links to articles bearing further analysis or detail.
this site asked me three times for my email and password to get on here. I think it is kinda ridiculous because now it is just one more password i have to remember. That is just my opinion. But this article is pretty darn cool, I'm gonna do it for my current event for school :)
i think this is true but at the same time i think its fake can you post of the body and then we will see if bigger than the other platypus
how do you know that they lived 5-15 million years ago and not 500-1000 years ago & how do know that the tooth found is even from a platypus and some other type of creature
If you found this story interesting, please visit Taylor & Francis Online to read the full research article about 'Platypus-zilla' - http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2013.782876
This has nothing to do with the article, but can anyone give me a rational explanation as to why I had to subscribe via email to look at the NatGeo site ? never had to do it before why now? "Big Brother"? obviously I broke down in order to view but It is more than a nuisance to have to log on each time to view! Does anyone else feel the same
Perhaps the writer has given readers too much credit: the Platyous Evolutionary Tree would have painted a clearer picture - but really folks, did you seriously believe this was an indication of the entire tree being shaken?
Appreciate the discovery for what it is. An exciting opportunity which opens doors to rooms we've yet to step into.
How can one shake up an evolutionary "tree" which was incomplete in the first place? And the article's title is quite misleading.
Maybe it was a baby tooth? and so the platypus would be 15 meters long as an adult. HA
When you obtain your Ph.D. you'll probably arrive at all kinds of conclusions too and you won't bother explaining anything to us pee-ons either. But I admire your desire to cover your backside with facts rather than theory as much as possible.
I urge you to be careful when writing headlines about shaking up the evolutionary tree.
First, it isn't really correct; this discovery provides a rather minor shake to the small section of the tree involving platypus. The vast majority of the tree is not shaking at all.
Second, evolution denialists habitually seize on such phrases as "evidence" of their absurd claim that Darwinian theory is fragile and regularly undermined by new research.
Your readership would be better served with more accurate headlines that aren't so easily distorted. Mark my words - by next month, you'll soon see creationist websites claiming NatGeo debunked Darwin.
A 3 foot long "giant"??? Not impressive. I wanna see one that's at least big enough that the "Turtle Man" couldn't throw it in a bag.
@Grace Cole A current event for school? If so, what school do you go to? I'm not a stalker I am just using this for a current event too.
@Grace H Hi I think its cool that we are both doing a current event cuz' i dunno just there are so many school assighnments out there and we have the same one and we are using this one..... cool chiz
@Grace H me too! Had to set up a new email account and jump through all kind of hoops just to read a couple of new articles each week.
Same here. Wouldn't take my old password; when I tried a new one, it was rejected over and over, even though it fit their criteria. When I finally give up, I find out I'm logged in. It shouldn't be a mystery tour to get into this place...or should it? Hmmm.
@Jonathan Hernandez IT'S EXTINCT! THEY FOUND ONLY A TOOTH THAT WAS PART OF A FOSSIL. SRRY CAPS LOCK.
@Harry Mikolowski The same way they could tell how old are dinosaurs (And separate what time each of them lived) and other prehistoric species - Carbon Dating.
@Lizbeth Gracia I understand, I chose to sign in with fb since I didn't want to create yet another login. Apart from the Big Brother angle, I guess the more mundane explanation is that they are keeping tabs on how much viewership an article gets. This data would then be made available to advertisers who will then choose to place ads on NGS sites. Pretty much the same way FB and Google ads work.
The sensationalism I see in headlines reporting new fossil discoveries that "shake the foundations" of a particular species' evolutionary tree (e.g., the recently found 1.8-million-year-old hominid skull) is quite unnecessary and actually counter-productive. All it does add fuel to young-earth creationists' fire.
@Faithe Waites Well if the tooth is pretty worn out, it wouldn't be a juvenile unless it was doing some serious munching. However the article does say that teeth vanish in modern day adult platypuses ( should it be platypii ? ) so yes, this particular specimen may not be a fully grown adult.
@Jim Quinn Well said! This kind of yellow journalism is what prompted me to stop my National Geographic subscription (which I'd had for over 30 years). NS is sliding into sensationalism to please their readership.
@Kc McNally who is this "Turtle Man", and does he do children's birthday parties? Does he have a "Turtle Wo-man" at home?
@Ventura Calderon Parada mine didn't ask for anything i think it saved my password or im just thinking things
Charles H. Darwin!
Let's see, we have an ancient playtpus that evolved into a larger platypus, that evolved to a modern platypus. Voila - platypus evolution! Insert 'Darwin of the Gaps' crutch - we have no clue but someday we know we will.
Please modify your statement to be more accurate 'all it does is add evidence to young-earth creationists' case'.
Can't do that. YEC has no case.
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