24 January 2008

The Mystery of the Platypus

No, I'm not talking about the usual mysteries of platypuses* (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Not the electrosensitive bill, not the egg-laying, not the beaver-like tail, not the poisonous ankle spurs on males, and not the fact that females have no nipples but simply sweat milk out onto their bellies. (In fact, most of those aren't terribly mysterious at all—except for the bills and the tails, they're just ancestral traits for mammals.) Instead, today's mystery is: How long have platypuses been around, anyway?

Skeleton of a platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, at the Melbourne Museum. Photo by Peter Halasz.

And the reason I bring it up is because there is a new paper on the subject:

Rowe, T., T. H. Rich, P. Vickers-Rich, M. Springer and M. O. Woodburne (2008 January 29). The oldest platypus and its bearing on divergence timing of the platypus and echidna clades. PNAS 105(4):1238–1242. doi:10.1073/pnas.0706385105

It's not in print yet (hence the futuristic date), but it's been posted online. (Free access! Yes!)

The answer turns out to be rather bewildering. Well, first, let me clarify that I am actually asking how long stem-platypuses have been around. Platypuses proper (i.e., the crown group) have presumably not been around that long, but their ancestors go back to some time when the platypus lineage joins the lineage of echidnas (Tachyglossidae, a.k.a. spiny anteaters), an equally bizarre type of living, egg-laying mammal. Their final common ancestor, the ancestral monotreme, turns out to be difficult to pin down.

Rowe et al. review several molecular clock studies which have suggested a wide variety of dates for the origin of Monotremata, the platypus-echidna clade, from 17 to 131 million years ago. They can't even agree on whether one or two pan-monotreme lineages survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (about 65 million years ago). Some of the more reliable estimates are older, but Rowe et al. consider the oldest dates to be most likely.

Why? Teinolophos trusleri.

Volumetric reconstruction of NMV P216750, a Teinolophos trusleri rigth dentary. From Rowe et al. 2008.

This is a fossil species from 112.5 to 121 million years ago. It's usually regarded as a stem-monotreme, meaning that it would have no bearing on the platypus-echidna split. But Rowe et al. have done a morphology-based cladistic analysis that places it as a stem-platypus, the oldest one known. (They also find Steropodon galmani, a 110-million year old fossil based on an opalized jaw, to be a stem-platypus.) They also consider that it was ecologically platypus-like, i.e., that it was amphibious.

This would mean that things like platypuses were swimming around in the Early Cretaceous, under the snouts of gigantic dinosaurs. It would also mean that the echidna and platypus lineages had diverged well before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, perhaps sometime around the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary. So any theory as to the cause of the extinction would have to allow for both stem-echidnas and stem-platypuses to survive, instead of a single stem-monotreme lineage.

It also means that many of the molecular analyses would be quite wrong. And even the more correct ones would be just barely right. This means one of two things:
  1. Monotreme evolution is much slower than that of other mammals, and molecular clock studies are based on presumed rates that are too fast.
  2. Rowe et al. are wrong, and Teinolophos is a stem-monotreme, not a stem-platypus.

As for #2, Teinolophos is only known from jaw material, and echidnas do have highly modified, toothless jaws. If #2 is true, then echidnas would have evolved from a somewhat platypus-like ancestor, an intriguing possibility. (In fact, that could be the case even if #2 is not true.)

But #1 is perfectly possible as well. As the authors note, it might help explain why there are a thousand times more therian mammals than monotreme mammals alive today. (Theria is the crown group that includes marsupials and placentals, i.e., all living mammals apart from monotremes.) Molecular clock estimates are notoriously sketchy. Only further evidence (e.g., Mesozoic monotreme fossils) will help clarify the situation.

* No, the plural is not "platypi". If you want to be fancy and use the proper classical plural, it's "platypodes" (like "Antipodes"). But who wants to be that fancy?


  1. As for #2, Teinolophos is only known from jaw material, and echidnas do have highly modified, toothless jaws.

    Hey! Found you through the dinosaurs group on livejournal...

    Just thought i'd point you towards Steropodon galmani, it's a slightly later-Cretaceous (Lightning Ridge) monotreme that's almost definitely a platypus/stem-platypus (as opposed to an echidna).

    The echidna fossil record is mostly very recent, but you may also be interested in looking up a fossil called Kryoryctes (http://www.springerlink.com/content/757471p7870047k5/); it's a Cretaceous humerus that looks more like an echidna humerus than a platypus (but of course, maybe it was just a platypus that was a much more enthusiastic digger than modern ones). Other than that, the echidna fossil record is basically two or three species from the last few million years or so (all Cainozoic), so it is tempting to go with the idea that echidnas evolved from platypodes (see, i was paying attention!)... though, there's so little known about monotreme prehistory that anything's possible.

  2. Right, good point. Steropodon is found as a stem-platypus in the paper. (In fact, there's a whole clade of Mesozoic stem-platypuses, including Steropodon, Obdurodon, and Teinolophos, which makes me wonder if plesiomorphy might be drawing them together, not that that would affect them being stem-platypuses.)

    I had heard of Kryoryctes, but forgot until you mentioned it.

    "... there's so little known about monotreme prehistory that anything's possible."

    Ain't that the truth! Weird little buggers. Sometimes I wonder if they should ever have been added to Mammalia, but I suppose it's too late for that now. (If I had a nickel for every time someone said "mammal" when they really meant "therian" ... then again, some palentologists go the other way and say "mammal" when they really mean "mammaliaform".)

  3. Hi Mike, I'd just like to emerge from lurking to say I like your blog and keep up the good work! I'd also like to include this post in the next edition of Linnaeus Legacy, a taxonomy blog carnival. Check out future carnivals here and I encourage you to submit articles there in the future! This edition will be up at my blog Feb. 8. Have a good day!

  4. That would be great! I've read some of the Linnaeus' Legacy posts, but hadn't thought to submit anything just yet—I'll do so going forward.

  5. Just stumbled upon this blog, and will be subscribing to the feed :) I'm an artist who likes to paint scientists and philosophers, and i recently painted some platypuses in a piece featuring Linnaeus and Mendel, you and your readers may enjoy it.

  6. Heh, neat idea for a portrait! Cute platypuses. (Wait a sec -- does Linnaeus have two right hands?)

  7. I'm sure if Linnaeus had two right hands he would've chosen his own genus just for dual righted humans...It does look a little like he has two right hands, but Linneaus is in fact holding his hand in an inverted pose, grabbing onto the tail of the beastie.