Jars of echidnas dating back to the 1880s rediscovered in Cambridge

Echidna and platypus specimens dating back nearly 150 years have been rediscovered in a university museum.

Collected in the 1880s by the scientist William Caldwell, the specimens have been found in the stores of Cambridge’s University Museum of Zoology.

At the time of their collection, these specimens were key to proving that some mammals lay eggs – a fact that changed the course of scientific thinking and supported Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Cambridge’s collection includes baby echidnas and possums in jars, a dissected platypus uterus and a number of other platypus and marsupial specimens. 

A preserved echidna from the newly discovered collection by Scottish zoologist William Caldwell. The egg-laying mammal with a long snout and claws is native to Australia and New Guinea

A newly discovered echidna specimen, suspected to have been collected by William Caldwell

A newly discovered echidna specimen, suspected to have been collected by William Caldwell

WHO WAS WILLIAM CALDWELL? 

William Caldwell (1859 to 1941) was a Scottish zoologist who performed research in Australia in the 1880s. 

Born in Portobello, Edinburgh in 1859, he went from Loretto (Scotland’s oldest boarding school) to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1877.

He was scholar of his College during 1878–83, and obtained a first class in the Natural Sciences Tripos of 1881.

William Caldwell was sent to Australia in 1883 – with substantial financial backing from the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the British Government. 

In an extensive search Caldwell collected around 1,400 specimens with the help of a large group of Aboriginal Australians. In 1884 the team eventually found an echidna with an egg in her pouch, and a platypus with one egg in her nest and another just about to be laid. 

This unique collection had not been catalogued by the museum, so until recently staff hadn’t been aware of its existence. 

The find was made by Jack Ashby, assistant director at the museum, while he was doing research for a new book on Australian mammals.

‘It’s one thing to read the 19th century announcements that platypuses and echidnas actually lay eggs. But to have the physical specimens here, tying us back to that discovery almost 150 years ago, is pretty amazing,’ said Ashby.

‘I knew from experience that there isn’t a natural history collection on Earth that actually has a comprehensive catalogue of everything in it, and I suspected that Caldwell’s specimens really ought to be here.

‘The specimens we’ve found are all pouch-young or nestlings, so they are quite small. The largest is about 12cm [4.7 inches].’

Ashby had asked collections manager Mathew Lowe to keep an eye out for Caldwell’s specimens

Only three months later, a small box of specimens was found in the museum with a note suggesting they were Caldwell’s – which was later confirmed by Ashby’s investigations.

Ashby had to shine UV light on some of the labels inside the jars to make them easier to read, because the writing on them had faded. 

‘Some of those labels name Caldwell, some of them just have the dates of his expedition, and some say “C Collection”, but looking at them all together has enabled me to match which ones we can say definitely are Caldwell’s,’ Ashby said. 

‘I’ve also been comparing them to what Caldwell wrote back in the 1880s to try and identify them that way – the kind of material he writes he was working on is matches closely what we’ve found in the store.’ 

Overall there are two possums, two echidnas and one platypus that are certain to be collected by Caldwell from a batch catalogued last week. 

Another newly discovered echidna specimen. Believe it or not, echidna spines are actually long, tough, hollow hair follicles

Another newly discovered echidna specimen. Believe it or not, echidna spines are actually long, tough, hollow hair follicles

Jack Ashby, assistant director of University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge, holds a newly discovered Caldwell specimen

Jack Ashby, assistant director of University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge, holds a newly discovered Caldwell specimen

MAMMALS LAYING EGGS SUPPORTS DARWIN’S THEORY OF EVOLUTION 

Platypuses and echidnas were important for supporting evolutionary theory in the 19th century.

The fact that they lay eggs is a good example of how evolution works, said Jack Ashby at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Egg-laying was considered something that reptiles and amphibians do, but not mammals. 

‘Since we now know that mammals evolved from reptile-like ancestors, it stands to reason that the first mammals lay eggs,’ Ashby told MailOnline. 

‘In proving that indeed, some mammals today lay eggs, it provides evidence for that idea. 

‘Echidnas and platypuses, therefore, showed a mix of features that people had previously considered to be either mammalian or reptilian – in having both sets of features, it shows that animals evolve.’

‘Evolution works with what it’s got, and then adds or modifies features from there.’

‘In the case of mammals, it started with egg-laying, and 200 million years later we have the diversity of forms we see today.

Some of those have never stopped laying eggs (platypuses and echidnas), and some have (everything else alive today).’

Ashby and colleagues are still finding more specimens in the museum’s collection; on Wednesday, he told MailOnline that they had found another 10 specimens in another part of the stores. 

‘That’s a bit of a surprise as I thought we’d found all of the places uncatalogued platypuses and echidnas were in the stores,’ he said.

‘There are definitely some more in the batch we’ve just found this afternoon, but that will take some time to unpick.

‘On top of that there are probably about 10-20 more that are in the “probably Caldwell’s” category.’ 

Ashby told MailOnline that the platypuses were able to fit in jars because the ones they found are all pouch-young or nestlings, so they are quite small. The discovered echidnas are also nearly all pouch-young and nestlings.

Until Europeans first encountered platypuses and echidnas in the 1790s, it had been assumed that all mammals give birth to live young.

The question of whether some mammals lay eggs then became one of the biggest questions of 19th century zoology, and hotly debated in scientific circles. 

The newly discovered collection of little jars represents the huge scientific endeavour that went into solving this mystery. 

‘In the 19th century, many conservative scientists didn’t want to believe that an egg-laying mammal could exist, because this would support the theory of evolution – the idea that one animal group was capable of changing into another,’ said Ashby.

‘Lizards and frogs lay eggs, so the idea of a mammal laying eggs was dismissed by many people – I think they felt it was degrading to be related to animals that they considered “lower life forms”.’

The newly discovered collection includes echidnas, platypuses and marsupials at varying life stages from fertilised egg to adolescence. 

Caldwell was the first to make complete collections of every life stage of these species – although not all of his specimens have been found in Cambridge’s museum. 

Platypus from Shaw (1799). Platypuses are one of the only mammals that can detect electricity, and one of the only mammals to produce venom

Platypus from Shaw (1799). Platypuses are one of the only mammals that can detect electricity, and one of the only mammals to produce venom

Echidna foraging in the wild. Echidnas, sometimes known as spiny anteaters, are quill-covered monotremes belonging to the family Tachyglossidae

Echidna foraging in the wild. Echidnas, sometimes known as spiny anteaters, are quill-covered monotremes belonging to the family Tachyglossidae

Ashby said: 'Platypuses and echidnas are not weird, primitive animals as many historic accounts depict them - they are as evolved as anything else'

Ashby said: ‘Platypuses and echidnas are not weird, primitive animals as many historic accounts depict them – they are as evolved as anything else’

Caldwell was sent to Australia in 1883 with substantial financial backing from the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the British Government.

In an extensive search Caldwell collected around 1,400 specimens with the help of a large group of Aboriginal Australians. 

In 1884, the team eventually found an echidna with an egg in her pouch, and a platypus with one egg in her nest and another just about to be laid.

This was the definitive proof Caldwell had been looking for, and the news was sent around the world. 

The colonial scientific establishment was apparently only willing to accept this result now that it had been confirmed by ‘one of their own’.

Over the last two centuries, scientists have consistently belittled Australian mammals by describing them as strange and inferior, according to Ashby. 

He believes that this language continues to affect how we describe them today, and undermines efforts to conserve them. 

A well-preserved platypus specimen in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. Theis platypus specimen is an adult, but it’s not part of the Caldwell Collection. It came to the Museum in the 1970s, when the President of the Royal Society was given it as an official gift of his visit (it had died after getting caught in a fishing net)

A well-preserved platypus specimen in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. Theis platypus specimen is an adult, but it’s not part of the Caldwell Collection. It came to the Museum in the 1970s, when the President of the Royal Society was given it as an official gift of his visit (it had died after getting caught in a fishing net)

The specimens have been found in the stores of Cambridge's University Museum of Zoology (pictured with Ashby)

The specimens have been found in the stores of Cambridge’s University Museum of Zoology (pictured with Ashby)

‘Platypuses and echidnas are not weird, primitive animals as many historic accounts depict them – they are as evolved as anything else,’ Ashby said. 

‘It’s just that they’ve never stopped laying eggs. I think they’re absolutely amazing and definitely worth valuing.’

The quill-covered echidnas are the most widespread mammal in Australia. 

They cover the whole continent and have adapted to live in all climates, from snow-covered mountains and the driest deserts.

Platypuses are one of the only mammals that can detect electricity, and one of the only mammals to produce venom.

With a tail like a beaver, a flat bill, and webbed feet like a duck, the first specimens brought to Europe were deemed by some as fakes that had been sewn together.

Ashby’s new book, Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals, is published in the UK on Thursday (May 12) by HarperCollins.

ECHIDNAS BAFFLE SCIENTISTS WITH THE ‘WEIRDEST PENISES’ IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM – AND YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE 

The ‘very strange and unusual’ echidna penis remains a mystery to researchers who still don’t understand why it has four heads.

The ‘very long’ phallus makes up a third of the mammal’s body while erect, is bright red and has four endings, which can all be used for reproduction.

University of Queensland researcher Dr Steve Johnston co-authored a study on the short-beaked echidna’s impressive member, but said only ‘the creator God’ knows why it is so bizarrely shaped.

It may be to please the insatiable female echidna, who scientists believe may mate with up to a dozen males while ovulating.

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT: This Australian animal has the ‘weirdest penis’ in the animal kingdom