Consider the Platypus

Evolution through Biology's Most Baffling Beasts


By Maggie Ryan Sandford

Illustrated by Rodica Prato

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Interested in the origins of the species? Consider the Platypus uses pets such as dogs and cats as well as animal outliers like the axolotl and naked mole rat to wittily tackle mind-bending concepts about how evolution, biology, and genetics work.

Consider the Platypus explores the history and features of more than 50 animals to provide insight into our current understanding of evolution. Using Darwin’s theory as a springboard, Maggie Ryan Sandford details scientists’ initial understanding of the development of creatures and how that has expanded in the wake of genetic sequencing, including the:
  • Peppered Moth, which changed color based on the amount of soot in the London air;
  • California Two-Spotted Octopus, which has the amazing ability to alter its DNA/RNA not over generations but during its lifetime;
  • miniscule tardigrade, which is so hearty it can withstand radiation, lack of water and oxygen, and temperatures as low as -328°F and as high 304 °F;
  • and, of course, the platypus, which has so many disparate features, from a duck’s bill to venomous spur to mammary patches, that scientists originally thought it was a hoax.

Surprising, witty, and impeccably researched, Sandford describes each animal’s significant features and how these have adapted to its environment, such as the zebra finch’s beak shape, which was observed by Charles Darwin and is a cornerstone of his Theory of Evolution. With scientifically accurate but charming art by Rodica Prato, Consider the Platypus showcases species as diverse as the sloth, honey bee, cow, brown kiwi, and lungfish, to name a few, to tackle intimidating concepts is a accessible way.


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When your passion is communicating with the public about science, you’ll talk about your work to anyone who will listen, and listen to anyone who will talk. You start to notice patterns in people’s reactions to certain topics. Evolution, it turns out, is a word that gets a reaction, which can range from name-checking terms like “survival of the fittest” to jokes about being a monkey’s uncle, to starting debate about theology.

Evolution is a weighty topic, with as many data points as the number of cells that are alive on Earth. Only biologists who really specialize in the subject are willing to lean in to conversation about it, as it is so fraught with core beliefs.

Take, for instance, this anecdote by the evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos, from his book Improbable Destinies. He describes a conversation he had on an airplane, en route to conduct a field study on the evolution of color in desert mice, for which he invented a special fencing technique. When the gentleman in the seat next to him asked about his work, he happily described the experiment. His fellow traveler had grown up on a farm, so he was familiar with animal proliferation—that’s what breeding livestock is all about, after all. But as soon as Losos let the name Darwin fall from his lips, the mood of the conversation nosedived. When they were talking mice and mating and coat color and fencing, the two men were speaking the same language. But when animal husbandry became evolution, it became a loaded word.

Sometimes the best way to make a concept less weighty is through a story, such as Red Riding Hood’s cute cautionary tale as a stand-in for the harsh risks of talking to strangers. The stories here belong to the animals. Or rather, they belong to entire families of animals, lineages, their arcs told in geological time.

In selecting stories for this book, I attempted to be democratic in my sampling, to include animals from far-flung corners of the animal kingdom, animals beloved and reviled and rarely heard of. Animals that have been scantly researched appear alongside heavily researched animals—those “greatest hits” animals that show up in every evolution textbook.

I grilled evolutionary biologists for their favorite critters and plowed through texts for standouts. I stood on the shoulders of those who went before to see what they’d seen and hadn’t seen, then went to Google Scholar to see if anyone had seen anything lately and how many people had cited them for it. I thought I’d settled on about 140 animals at one point, then painstakingly whittled the list down to the menagerie you see here.

Together, I hope they help illuminate some of the vast, deep, weighty, loaded story of evolution. If nothing else, the experts I talked to seemed to be glad I was taking on this effort instead of them, so heyyyy! Happy to help! Even though this project sometimes made me feel like Red Riding Hood herself, venturing one step at a time into a big dark woods with way too many paths and a basket not nearly big enough for everything I needed to carry. It was worth it though to meet the creatures that teemed in the branches and streams and under the dirt.

Beagle Laid Ashore, River Santa Cruz, 1839. By Conrad Martens, a landscape artist who traveled alongside Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle’s fateful second worldwide voyage.


This is a book about animals, by animals, for animals. I’m an animal. And so are you.

If you have an adverse reaction to being called an animal, remember this: it’s just a word, a word made up by animals to describe other animals, only to later realize that we’re among them.

For the purpose of this book, though, I use the definition of animal that is currently universally accepted by the scientific community: an organism (living thing) that:

is made up of more than one cell (multicellular)

feeds on organic matter

rapidly responds to stimuli


In short: something that is alive but is not a plant, fungus, virus, bacteria, or other single-celled thing. If you’re disappointed to find your favorite animal missing from this book, let me tell you: me too. (The scarcity of birds profiled is downright criminal.)

Overall, though, the choice of featured animals herein represents a microcosm of the study of animal evolution.


Not even that has a single name. Evolutionary biology is the most common, but the researchers can be paleontologists, ecologists, zoologists, taxonomists, physiologists, behavioral neuroscientists, embryologists, oncologists, and now geneticists. Researchers can even be laypeople committed to counting the ticks on their dogs or crows in their yards each season.

Like the process of evolution itself, the process of understanding it is messy. It started blind, crawled along from one fossilized tooth to another, one dissection, one fuzzy DNA gel, one scattershot genome to the next, until slowly those patterns started to emerge.


You’ll be seeing a lot of Charles Darwin in this book. He’s credited with the theory of evolution, and although he wasn’t the only one onto it, he really kicked things off. His isn’t the only voice that has contributed to our understanding of evolution, but his was the primary, foundational voice. Think of his presence here as a case study in evolutionary biology, much in the same way each animal here is a case study.

By the end of his life and long after, Darwin is a key figure in the study of evolution, but he wasn’t always a formidable genius.

His evolutionary story, if you will, began at age 16, when young Charlie escaped the relative drudgery of his medical apprenticeship to learn from one John Edmonstone, a freed slave who taught taxidermy at the University of Edinburgh.

At age 22, much to the dismay of his wealthy doctor father, Charles snuck off to board the HMS Beagle, having accepted relatively meager wages to be resident naturalist on what was to be a two-year voyage charting the coastline of South America. By the time he returned to London, Darwin had been away four years, circumnavigated the globe, and observed a lifetime’s worth of biodiversity. This journey sowed the mental seeds that would become his theory of evolution.

Here he is as a child with his sister, holding a potted plant like a dork.

It took Darwin 20 years after his return on the Beagle to take his ideas public. He might never have gotten up the gumption had it not been for Alfred Russel Wallace, a young naturalist and admirer of Darwin’s who wrote him a series of letters about a nascent theory of his own. Fueled by passion and friendly competition, the two joined forces and published as soon as they could. Though Darwin claimed the legacy, Wallace remained a key collaborator and eventually became his friend.

Darwin’s theory laid the foundation upon which all modern evolutionary scientists have continued to build. It holds up even today under the ever increasing informational mass of fields like genetics and genomics, despite the fact that the gene itself—the key mechanism for heritability—was so elusive to Darwin that he nearly suffered a mental breakdown in its pursuit.

Here he is as a young man with an awkward hairdo.

Beyond this, you won’t see too many names of other scientists in this book, as I don’t want you to get sidetracked by them. Or by dates. Or by a lot of jargon, which is necessary for science, but it’s a double-edged sword. If you understand the jargon, you’ve got an automatic “in”; if you don’t, it might drive you away.

A Venerable Orang-outang, 1871. One of many caricatures of Charles Darwin, this from a satirical magazine printed two whole years after his treatise, On the Origin of Species, first dropped.


The notion of a family tree is a comfortable one, a useful tool for one to trace one’s proud parentage back through the ages. It’s a logical leap to extend the tool to connect all life on Earth, an image that has emerged repeatedly in the minds of naturalists even pre-dating Darwin. But Darwin made it famous. For 32 years, as he worked through the ideas that would become his theory, he sketched “trees of life” over and over, most especially in a private, back-burner notebook he’d simply labeled “B.”

One particular tree from this notebook has become iconic and is sometimes hailed as his eureka moment. It depicts a single ancestor (1) begetting many others who beget others and eventually we end up with living species (A on one branch; B, C, and D on another). You’ll see it posted on laboratory walls and classrooms—even tattooed on the bodies of true evolution nerds.

But while this is one of the cleaner and more complete versions of Darwin’s tree, it was one of his first. It dissatisfied him. (Note the “I think” scrawled above it, as if to ward off the ill luck of hubris, even in his own private journals.) It was incomplete. For starters, the tree itself is alive, which is sort of like using a word to define itself. On another page he considers instead another option, ruminating:

“The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life, base of branches dead; so that passages cannot be seen.”

But later he decides:

“No only makes it excessively complicated… contradiction to constant succession of germs in progress.” (By “germs” he meant genes, or what would eventually come to be called genes. Another term he hunted for all his life.)

Naturalists before Darwin and many more after him have all tried to reimagine the tree of life, up to and including a massive cross-institutional effort published in a 2016 article in the scientific journal Nature, that allowed the tree to spiral in on itself so as to accommodate all the information springing from it. In the two years since, the explosion of genomic science has begun to work with the image of a web of life, acknowledging connections shared by species that haven’t shared an ancestor for millennia or more.

For the purposes of this book, consider a river.

Like a tree, a river branches, but its path is determined only by its environment and the laws of physics (such as gravity, friction, and motion). It does not have a predetermined shape; it doesn’t have a driving “life” force. It simply runs toward the ocean, diverted by rocks, hills, valleys, and weather. Over time and space, some rivulets dry into gas and reenter the water cycle (like animals dying off, ending lineages and returning organic molecules to the environment), while other rivulets might split, shrink, or grow.

The river has volume, too, three dimensions rather than single points linked by lines. When we talk about “an animal” here we’re not (usually) talking about a single animal from which all others spring. We’re not even talking about two animals and their lineage, like the “begats” on a human family tree. We’re talking about groups of animals, populations over time, that bred and changed en masse, branched and met back up, grew and shrank, left a few fossils behind and brought traces of all of those changes with them.

It’s much easier to picture the complexity and sheer amount of information in the mix this way, a flooded gene pool in motion. The weight of the information we’ve learned (and have yet to learn) from the study of genomes has become too great for a tree branch to hold. A river can always grow wider and deeper.

In the larger context, the headwaters become the place where life begins. Imagine organic molecules coming together for the first time, like how water exists in the water table and soil and as water vapor in the atmosphere, but it doesn’t become a river (life) until it burbles forth or rains down into the riverbed. It only becomes a river (life) when it gains momentum and runs. It is life as long as it is moving forward.

Darwin’s most famous Tree of Life diagram, just one of dozens he worked and reworked in his journals.


(Ornithorhynchus anatinus)


Platypuses have long been considered oddballs in the animal kingdom, which makes them the perfect first stop on our journey into the weird world of evolutionary science.

HAIR like a mammal (because it is a mammal).

BILL-lookin’ snout that used to be filled with teeth.

MAMMARY PATCHES: like nipples without the nipple part.

EGGS: much more complicated than they look. (What else would you expect from an egg laid by a mammal?)


About 15 inches (38 centimeters) long

Depending on where in the genome you look, your genes match the platypus’s more than you might think, but not enough to accept a kidney from one any time soon.

Having diverged from the rest of Animalia just after the emergence of modern mammals, the platypus finds itself at the tip of lonely rivulets off the “Monotreme Stream” next to echidna like Zaglossus attenboroughi (named for the beloved television naturalist). Funny thing about evolutionary outliers, their ancient relatives look just like them. “Living fossil” is of course a misnomer (for more, see Coelacanth, here), but a nicer way to describe animals that time forgot might be “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Since the platypus’s isolated Australian habitat has changed only slightly through the millennia, the only thing that time forgot was about two feet and its teeth. Prehistoric proto-platypuses included three species of oversized, carnivorous proto-platypuses, which make the whole family line seem less silly and more kill-y. But only a little.




It’s Europe in the late 1790s. The term scientist won’t be a thing for 35 years. But the folks who study the natural world know so little about the platypus that when they get hold of their first study skin, they think it’s a fake. (Faux exotique animals are in vogue at this time, like the infamous Feejee Mermaid, aka half a dead monkey with a dried fish tail sewn on.) Science in the 1790s says that fur = mammal, but this one is like no other mammal they’ve seen. They spend the next 200 years trying to decide how to classify platypuses, poring over scant specimens, arguing among themselves, and often putting more stock in their own made-up system of classification than in the evidence before their very eyes.

Different groups of researchers arrived at different understandings of the platypus’s situation as each group found more information. Others ignored new information and continued believing what they wished to. (Yes, scientists do this, too. But not the good ones.) It wasn’t until 2008 that a team of geneticists from Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the US all came together to sequence the platypus genome. The genome belonged to Glennie, a female platypus named after the Glenrock area of New South Wales where she was found. But you can think of her as the John Glenn of platypodes, rocketing monotreme science into the future—and nearly into the realm of science fiction. Patterns in her DNA matched patterns in a baffling array of different genera. Patterns associated with her dense, oily fur, though, were indeed mammalian, specifically reminiscent of genetic fur-making patterns in otters and beavers.


In 1799 a naturalist named George Shaw documented the freaky beast and its parts, giving it a name that eventually partially sticks: Platypus anatinus (from the Greek for “flat-footed” and the Latin for “duck-like”).

The bill’s lack of teeth misled early naturalists to assume the bill was bird-ish. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, paleontologists studying the platypus’s fossil record found teeth from early relatives of the platypus. In 2013, an American paleontologist unearthed a molar from an ancient duck-billed monotreme that was about 3.5 feet (more than 1 meter) long and probably ate large prey like frogs, birds, and entire turtles. She was the first to assert that as these “proto-puses” evolved and shrank, a ridged bill and rough tongue became sufficient to eat smaller food, and it lost its teeth to the ages.

But that’s not all: a team of geneticists in 2008 found that Glennie’s bill featured an elaborate radar system (sort of): a combination of touch receptors and electroreceptors that allowed her to pick up movements and low-frequency electrical signals in her prey like some kind of Dadaist shark. Indeed, most of the other animals that use electricity as a sixth sense are fish. But the genetic patterns that bring about the trait in platypuses read the same.


Back in 1779, Shaw agreed with Australian colonists’ nickname for the platypus, “water mole,” suggesting that its beady little eyes seemed as useless as those of the subterranean garden ruiners.

For those of you just looking at the pictures: This is not a real thing. The “Feejee Mermaid” was faked by a taxidermist, but is a useful lesson: (1) ABS: Always Be Skeptical.

George Shaw himself produced these rather questionable drawings of the platypus’s anatomy and in 1799 published them in The Naturalist’s Miscellany, or Coloured Figures of Natural Objects. Included is the male platypus’s venom spur.

But in 2008, the genomic team findings suggested that the platypus’s eyes have a rod/cone balance that most closely resembled that of other mammals. They also have a “double cone” thing going on, a feature found in neither eutherian mammals (mammals that give birth to fully developed young) nor marsupials (who keep their young in pouches for some time after birth—e.g., kangaroos and opossums). Meanwhile, their eyeballs are enclosed by a type of cartilage more like that seen in birds, reptiles, amphibians, sharks, rays, and creepy movie monsters.


The mole comparison extends beyond platypuses’ eyes to their massive clawed feet, which—like moles—they use to dig complex burrows.

And while the 2008 genomic team couldn’t say exactly which part of the platypus’s DNA codes for “feet,” they could point out the genetic markers for their venom. Delivered by a sting from spurs in the male platypus’s hind legs, this venom contains genetic codes similar to the venom in reptiles. But it also contains strings of code found in mammals, most of which aren’t venomous. A likely explanation is that venom was a trait found in a prehistoric ancestor shared by most extant animal families (birds, reptiles, mammals, fish), but most mammals and birds lost it as they evolved.

There are a few other mammals that are venomous, however, and one of them is a mole-like shrew called the solenodon. Coincidence? Maybe. Co-incidence, yes. Coincidence like “freak accident,” no.


Eggs are small, humble things. But if you’ve ever tried to answer the chicken or egg question, you can see how confounding eggs can be for a person just trying to get some answers.

In 18th-century Australia, European colonists started showing up and shooting animals and arguing about how to classify them. The chief of a local indigenous community tried to tell the Europeans that it was common knowledge among his people that female platypuses lay eggs. The eggs are approximately the same size and color of small chicken eggs, laid two at a time, always in a nest among the reeds just atop the surface of the water. He said the motherpus spends a lot of time sitting on the eggs. And by the way, this animal already has a name, mallangong. The Europeans made note of his quaint anecdote but decided they required more proof.


  • "I have met Maggie Ryan Sandford, and I have read her work. And I am confident that she is the ideal woman to explain why dolphins are weird."—Chuck Klosterman
  • "Consider the Platypus is a marvelously fun book, one that encourages the reader to think about evolution from new angles by exploring the "oddballs of the animal kingdom," who are some of the favorite animals of evolutionary biologists."—American Scientist
  • A pre-blurb from Mary Roach, who doesn't blurb:
"Oh man, everyone should be writing science in oversized graphic form, especially about evolution. Everyone loves weird animals. I'm envious."—Mary Roach
  • "Science buffs and animal lovers will gravitate to Consider the Platypus.... If you're intrigued by DNA-altering octopuses, radiation-withstanding tardigrades, and venomous platypuses, then you should pick [it] up!"—-Ars Technica
  • "In Consider the Platypus, science journalist Maggie Ryan Sandford examines the curious species [of platypus] and more than 40 others of particular interest to the study of evolution... In cheery, pun-filled prose, she reviews the physical characteristics of the species, sketches its development and considers the evolutionary lesson it has to teach."—Wall Street Journal's "What to Give: Books on Nature"
  • On Sale
    Aug 27, 2019
    Page Count
    272 pages

    Maggie Ryan Sandford

    About the Author

    Maggie Ryan Sandford is a science journalist, broadcast media producer, researcher, award-winning comedy writer, speaker, and performer. She has been published in Smithsonian, Slate,, National Geographic, mental floss, Glamour,, The Onion’s A.V Club, and appeared regularly on All Things Considered and Freakonomics Tell Me Something You Don’t Know. She also worked as a research associate at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where she studied the way people engage with science. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

    Learn more about this author

    Rodica Prato

    About the Illustrator

    Rodica Prato‘s award-winning pen-and-ink work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, books and advertisements, including many of Martha Stewart’s books; the official map of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, drawn tree by tree; the Steinway history 88 Keys; a number of Garrison Keillor’s covers, and detailed illustrations for The White House Historical Association. She lives in New York City.

    Learn more about this illustrator