26 May 2024

THE PLATYPUS: A MASCOT OF THE MISFITS WITH DEEP CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE

Words by Dr Vanessa Barnett, Indigenous Content Specialist at WWF-Australia

Perhaps fittingly, the platypus has always been seen as a ‘bit of an odd duck’. 

Tasmania platypus eating worm
Tasmania platypus eating worm © Adobe Stock

It looks endearingly out of place next to other native Australian species, and there aren’t any other species quite like it in the world. The echidna, the platypus’ closest living relative, and, incidentally, my totem, could not be designed to look more different from its fellow monotreme. This two-strong order of animals, mammals of the order Monotremata, is thought to have split from other mammals at least 166 million years ago. The creature known as biladurang to the Wiradjuri Peoples is startlingly one-of-a-kind, yet decidedly low-key and quiet. If the platypus had a theme song, it would be a pared-down acoustic cover of “I’m an Individual” by Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson.

A totemic species with many Creation stories

The platypus is very culturally significant to First Peoples. It is a totemic species that features in prominent Creation stories. These stories were shared by neighbouring language groups and would change as they travelled along river systems. The platypus was also a vital food source for a number of language groups. For others, the platypus was too sacred to be eaten. As Dameon Hunter of Djabugay Bulmba Rangers puts it, “for our mob, they were too special to be hunted. It was taboo.”

Kamilaroi artist Teagan Malcolm's depiction of the platypus
Kamilaroi artist Teagan Malcolm's depiction of the platypus © Teagan Malcolm / WWF-Australia

Artist statement from Kamilaroi artist Teagan Malcolm:

"Being asked to work on this campaign is truly an honour. The work WWF does to support the platypus population and safeguard the red gums that sustain their habitats is profoundly significant. That's why I felt it was important for the final artwork to be vibrant and engaging.

In addition to showcasing the platypus, I’ve included three key elements into the background: habitat, food sources, and human collaboration, all vital for the platypus population's survival. 

I’m a proud Kamilaroi woman and have lived on Wurundjeri country for many years. The continuous care of Country, and the sustainability of our native animals and flora is something I hold dearly. Unfortunately, local sightings of platypuses are now rare due to habitat damage and dwindling biodiversity. That's why the work of organisations like WWF is indispensable if we hope to preserve these unique and magical native animals for generations to come."

The platypus is unbelievable but true

Famously, when British scientists first laid eyes on a preserved platypus body in the late 18th century, some thought it was the ultimate novelty ‘prank’ souvenir. Perhaps anticipating the larrakin humour Australia would become known for, the specimen—sent back from its Country intact—was deemed a hoax, a Frankenstein’s monster of different animal body parts sewn together. 

This illustration by Frederick Polydore Nodder is the first published illustration of a platypus. It accompanied George Shaw's 1799 description of the animal in the Naturalist's Miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects".

Specifically, it was speculated that somebody (likely an amateur taxidermist) had sewn a duck's beak onto the body of a beaver-like animal. "It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means," English zoologist George Shaw wrote in 1799.

Watercolour and drawing of Australian Platypus

Shaw even took a pair of scissors to the dried skin to check for stitches. He found none, yet remained unconvinced of the truth. Shaw, the first person to scientifically describe the echidna seven years earlier, couldn’t believe the platypus was real. 

Platypus underwater

The platypus, as a mascot of the misfits, has a very ancient origin story. The most well-known platypus Creation story, Biladurang the platypus, tells us that the platypus is a result of an introspective duck who wanted to watch the sunset in tranquil solitude after her duckling friends had returned home as instructed. Obdurodon tharalkooschild, an extinct, giant carnivorous platypus with fearsome teeth discovered in northwest Queensland, is named in part in honour of this Creation story. Waanyi people know Riverleigh, the region of its discovery, as their spiritual and sacred Boodjamulla (Rainbow Serpent) Country.

image

In the story of Biladurang, Gaygan the duck disregards tribal warnings about Mulloka (or Waaway), the water devil, ventures down the creek far from her tribe to watch the sun set alone, and is abducted by Biggoon, a large water rat. Inside the eggs she laid after returning home from the abduction, were their offspring, what we now know as the platypus. Gaygan and her platypus young, banished from family and hiding from Biggoon, were soon on a search for somewhere in the Darling River to belong. A fatal journey for Gaygan, but the platypus found their place. Perhaps Marvel and DC comics don’t pull their ideas out of thin air.

Platypus resurfacing

Indeed, the platypus and creativity have notable links—Kuranda Village, an arts and crafts hub in Tropical North Queensland, is situated on what the Djabugay People call ‘Ngunbay’, or place of platypus. 

The platypus’ connection to particular places is an important part of cultural identity for a number of language groups. WWF-Australia’s new First Nations Program Manager, Yuin woman Rosie Goslett-King, reveals Yaranbul (platypus in Dhurga) “are part of Yuin creation stories and found on our Country and in our sacred mountain sites Gulaga and Biamanga”.

There is nothing quite like the platypus, yet according to another Creation story, it doesn’t want to be seen as disconnected from other life. A Dreaming from the upper reaches of the Darling River tells of the Ancestor Spirits deciding on totems. The birds, marsupials, and fish all invite the platypus to join their family. However, after consulting with the echidna, the platypus informs the other animals that as they share characteristics, and wish to remain friends with all of them, they have decided not to belong to one single group. Not an inability to fit in, more an act of diplomacy. I imagine John Lennon would approve.

A number of First Nations groups, including the Wadi Wadi community are working to monitor and develop conservation efforts for platypus on Country. The Matakupay, or platypus, holds a special place in the cultural heritage of the Wadi Wadi community, whose traditional lands encompass the River Red Gum Forest Nyah Vinifera along the Murray River in North-Western Victoria. However, due to factors such as altered stream flow, sedimentation, and the use of drum traps, this unique and culturally significant creature has not been spotted in the area for many years.

But there are signs of hope for the platypus on the horizon. As part of WWF-Australia’s Rewilding Program, scientists and researchers have discovered a juvenile platypus in Sydney’s Royal National Park, less than a year after 10 platypuses were returned to the park where they had been locally extinct for more than 50 years. The six-month-old baby platypus named Gilli is the first-known animal of its kind to be born in Australia's oldest national park in more than half a century. Gilli was named by Yuin, Walbunja, Dhoorga Gurandgi cultural man Uncle Dean Kelly. Gilli means 'flame' or 'life has been ignited' in Dharawal language.

Rob Brewster, Fran Roncolato, and Patrick Giumelli from WWF-Australia release a platypus back into the Royal National Park
Rob Brewster, Fran Roncolato, and Patrick Giumelli from WWF-Australia release a platypus back into the Royal National Park © R Freeman, UNSW

Protecting culturally significant species like the platypus is, of course, vital. But there is something about the platypus, where the thought of losing it cuts too deep. On a recent trip to Tasmania, my mother and I, a pair of Yamatji Badimia women far from our Country in the west, went on a number of bushwalks. In truth, I eventually stopped counting how long and how many times we stopped abruptly while my mother shushed me and lay in wait. She was determined to see one thing. A platypus in the wild for the first time. Sadly, though my limited (but sufficient) knowledge on the likelihood of spotting platypus even in ‘hot spots’ kept my expectations where they should be, I could feel my mother’s hopes being slowly crushed as our journey progressed. We didn’t see one, and as a woman from Western Australia getting older and less able to travel, my mother was realising she may never. It was a palpable pain to witness in someone who has no totemic or cultural connection to the platypus, so for those who do, ensuring the platypus remains thriving on Mother Earth for generations to come is nothing short of a must. 

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