National Geographic : 1963 Sep
was a dreadful blow. We concluded that she had been bitten by a venomous red-backed spider (cousin to the American black widow) we later found sharing her nesting log. Few non-Australians, I suppose, have ever heard of the numbat, but the reverse is cer tainly true of the island continent's two mon otremes. In 1884 scientists were stunned by proof that the duck-billed platypus and the spiny anteater-both furred creatures that suckle their young-laid eggs, and thus were far more primitive than kangaroos and their kin. Here were creatures having character istics of both mammals and reptiles! When I began a day-by-day study of platy puses 30 years ago, I realized that a complete life history could be recorded only if a duck bill produced eggs and hatched young in captivity. Thus I set about a rather heart breaking task that was to take unbelievable effort and 10 years of experimentation. Apart from its extraordinary temperament, the platypus has an enormous capacity for special food, devouring each night the equiva lent of half or more of its own body weight! I found that to keep a pair of the animals in good health and breeding condition, each 24 hours I would need 1,200 earthworms and 50 fresh-water or burrowing crayfish. Added to this were tadpoles,grubs,and beetles in season. Our earliest attempts to breed the animals began in 1934 in the then-new Australian section of the Melbourne zoo, which I had been commissioned to design and build. In 1937 the scene shifted to the Sir Colin Mac kenzie Sanctuary, where late in 1943, after years of trial and plenty of errors, our platy pus Jill laid eggs and reared the first and famous baby, Corrie. Angry Jill Ejects Nest and Young Whenever I think back on this grand and still unique event, the highlight centers on the day we first inspected the burrow. How cau tiously we dug that morning! We opened the long nesting tunnel inch by inch. Suddenly in a bend of the passageway dry leaves showed up. There was a shrill sustained growl of annoyance as Jill's beak and head projected. We were both horrified and delighted when Jill in her rage turned her back and ejected nest and earth-and a fat, wrinkled babe with short satiny fur. "We've done it!" I whispered to my deputy, Cecil Milne, hardly believing what I saw. "We have really bred the platypus!" But all our calculations of growth rate had been wrong. We had hoped to find a foot-long, 396 lively youngster at eight and a half weeks of Hatched from an egg, this month-old spiny anteater lives in mother's pouch until emerg ing spines (visible as black dots amid the wrinkles) give her pain. Mature Tachyglos sus aculeatus laps up ants and termites. Platypus shows the "duck's bill" that led early scientists to label the furry animal a hoax. Males of egg-born Ornithorhynchus anatinus carry poison spurs on hind feet. KUUAt:HKU t UT lAN-T 6r vn M nf - BLACKAND WHITE BY DAVID FLEAY age; this baby was only nine inches long, quite blind, and entirely helpless. Our burn ing curiosity had brought about premature investigation. Wonderful Jill, however, car ried matters to a successful conclusion in a patched-up burrow. Corrie left the nest her self, a healthy, one-pound duckbill, at the age of 17 weeks. With the historic hatching, Jill taught us much about the platypus's gestation and in cubation period; how she maintained vital humidity by plugging the tunnel into the nesting chamber with earth; and how she consumed her own weight in food each 24 hours to provide milk for the baby. These and many other secrets gave us material for a book, We Breed the Platypus, and led us eventually on several trips to the United States and to meetings with famous biologists from many lands.* If the unique platypus represents Australia in the minds of people around the world, so does the kangaroo.t But few realize how large and varied a family these leaf- and grass eaters comprise. They range in size from the huge red kan garoo of the inland plains and the great gray *See "Flight of the Platypuses," by David Fleay, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, October, 1958. t See "The Incredible Kangaroo," by David H. John son, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, October, 1955.