It’s adorable, it’s cuddly, it makes you want to snuggle with it all day long; but its cousin might have been just a little bit scary. A “platypus-zilla” as researchers are calling it, measuring in at over three feet in length, was a meat eater and enjoyed munching on turtles and frogs as snacks, a new tooth fossil reveals. The specimen, which was unearthed by scientists at the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in an area of Australia called Queensland, is a major find for researchers. The results from the study of this unique fossil have been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The study provides details about how this enormous duck-billed animal reveals evolutionary clues, as researchers previously thought that more than one species of platypus did not exist in a given time period.
While scientist have playfully given this animal the nickname platypus-zilla, the official name for this cuddly-looking-yet-somewhat-terrifying creature is Obdurodon tharalkooschild. Scientists are excited about the find because it gives them deeper insight into how the modern platypus evolved. Dr. Suzanne Hand, a researcher at the University of South Wales, says this giant cousin of today’s platypus enjoyed splashing around in the water and dining on delicious small animals, explaining:
Like other platypuses, it was probably a mostly aquatic mammal, and would have lived in and around the freshwater pools in the forests that covered the Riversleigh area millions of years ago. Obdurodon tharalkooschild was a very large platypus with well-developed teeth, and we think it probably fed not only on crayfish and other freshwater crustaceans, but also on small vertebrates including the lungfish, frogs, and small turtles that are preserved with it in the Two Tree Site fossil deposit.
Unlike today’s platypus, its ancient cousin, the platypus-zilla, had fully formed teeth that it would use to crunch through the hard outer shells of its dinner. The three foot platypus is estimated to have lived sometime between 5 and 15 million years ago, making it a fascinating early specimen for scientists to study.
The find is also an excellent example of how researchers continue to fill in, on an almost daily basis, major gaps in the evolutionary tree. This fossil, for example, tells scientists that the evolution of the platypus species is far more complicated then was thought previously. It also creates potential additional gaps in platypus evolution which will have to be filled in; as researchers say this could mean that the fossil they found belonged to a platypus that is from an entirely separate and extinct branch in the evolutionary tree of this animal’s development.
Just as human evolution is not linear, so are the evolutionary trees of other species not linear. Now, with the discovery of this three foot long platypus-zilla, scientists can see that the evolution of this species, which they had thought was linear, may actually be much more complex and better represented as a tree with many branches. This creature munched on turtles as snacks; might there be an even larger platypus that’s yet to be discovered? If so, what would it have eaten?
By: Rebecca Savastio