Monday, September 21, 2009


The platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is a worthy curiosity. When in 1799 the first preserved specimen was brought to England, the naturalist George Shaw wondered if "there might have been practiced some art of deception in its structure." It still looks like a hoax with its bill like a duck and tail like a beaver and body covered with fur like a mole.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck thought it was the missing link between mammals and birds. The platypus lays 2 or 3 eggs which hatch into blind, hairless creatures the size of a lima bean. These babies are held between the abdomen and the tail, feeding not on nipples but milk secreted from patches on the abdomen.

Other strange revelations:
The males are venomous, injecting toxins by way of spurs on their hind feet.
The females have 2 ovaries but only the left one works.
The bill is a sensory organ used in hunting worms, larvae and other invertebrates that live underwater. It detects the electrical impulses given off as its prey moves.
The webbing on their feet retracts when they return to land, revealing toenails that help them run.

All of the specimens in the drawing are from the collection at the Exhibit Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The squirrel in the group has USSR marked on its base. The long tailed weasels and juvenile woodchuck are native to Michigan. They are standing on a piece of marbleized paper that I made at the Center for the Book Arts in New York.

The other collection present in the drawing is that of fossilized plants and invertebrates. My favorite examples are those where I have both sides of the rock that was split. They open like little books exposing twin images on the pages. I adore these ferns but the person who loves them and also understands them is Carl Mehling, Collections Manager of Fossil Reptiles, Amphibians, and Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He has edited a book called Fossils, published by Thunder Bay Press. Many of the specimens in the book are from his private collection. I count myself lucky to know Carl.

I had my drawing with me in New York 3 summers ago and Carl was able to identify the specimens in the drawing.

"When I say 'are the leaves of' I am spotlighting a peculiarity of paleobotany: plants are rarely found whole and it is the norm to assign different 'form genera' to different parts of the plants when they can not be confidently associated. For instance, Pecopteris is a form genus of leaves that grew on Psaronius which is named for the stem/trunk".

Neuropteris sp., Carboniferous are the leaves of a seed fern. Seed ferns are not ferns - they only look like them. They are long extinct.

Pecopteris sp
., Carboniferous are leaves of true ferns, in fact, a tree fern.

Alethopteris sp.,
Carboniferous are the leaves of a seed fern.

Annularia sp., Carboniferous are leaves of a huge relative of horsetails.

Cyclopteris sp
., Carboniferous are the leaves of a seed fern.

Sphenophyllum sp.,
Carboniferous are the leaves of a relative of horsetails.

-like conifer cone, Jurassic, Argentina. The genus is still around today and it is know as the monkey-puzzle or Norfolk Island Pine.

Elrathia kingii,
Cambrian, Wheeler Fm., Utah. A trilobite.

Ammonite, Devonian, Morocco. Although highly reminiscent of modern Nautilus are actually more closely related to octopi.

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