May 15, 2021 | Jerry Bergman

Platypus Origins: The Mystery Deepens

A review of the New Scientist article, “The platypus:
What nature’s weirdest mammal says about our origins”

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Much is promised in the article reviewed here, but in the end little is delivered. The Darwinism-based article claims, “despite their oddities, their newly sequenced [platypus] genome illuminates the evolution of mammals.”[1] Actually, the newly sequenced genome does nothing of the kind. If anything, it creates problems for evolution. The study, published in the esteemed journal Nature, is titled, “Platypus and echidna genomes reveal mammalian biology and evolution.”[2] The word evolution was used 65 times in the article. Most of the usage reveals that the evolutionary conclusions are mere speculation. For example:

We provide evidence that the monotreme sex chromosome complex originated from an ancestral chromosome ring configuration. The formation of such a unique chromosome complex may have been facilitated by the unusually extensive interactions between the multi-X and multi-Y chromosomes that are shared by the autosomal homologues in humans.[3]

They found evidence that previous dates given for evolutionary events were greatly in error. Dating revisions like this are common in evolutionary writing. It illustrates the fact that many evolutionary dates are estimates, actually better described as guesstimates:

Our phylogenomic reconstruction shows that monotremes diverged from therians around 187 million years ago, and the two monotremes diverged around 55 million years ago…. This estimate provides a date for the monotreme–therian split that is earlier than previous estimates (about 21 million years ago).[4]

From 21 million years to 55 million years represents an enormous difference in time! Here is another example of their rank speculation: “gene families associated with the immune response and hair growth were expanded considerably in the mammalian ancestor, perhaps contributing to the evolution of immune adaptation and fur, respectively, in mammals.[5] And another example explains similarities by claiming convergent evolution, where two close-to-identical structures evolved independently. Convergence is a very problematic explanation, given the fact that expecting a trait to emerge by evolution even once is unlikely in the extreme:

Chemosensory systems …  that is essential for survival and reproduction through the direct interaction with environmental chemical cues .For example, eutherian mammals have more than 25 copies of bitter taste receptor genes (TAS2R genes), whereas this gene family is considerably smaller in monotremes with only 7 in platypus. The number is reduced to three in echidna. This reduction is also observed in pangolins, which suggests convergent evolution that results from the insectivore diet of both echidnas and pangolins.[6]

A platypus in a zoo. Note how the beak does not look like it belongs on the animal. From Wikimedia Commons.

The Problem of Platypus Taxonomy

The gap between platypus anatomy and that of all other mammals is so large that platypus taxonomy has been enigmatic ever since its discovery in the late 1700s by westerners in Australia. This gap has been underscored by recent genetic findings, including the analysis of the completed genome reviewed here.[7]

A platypus possesses a strange mosaic of features. Unlike any other mammal, it lays eggs like a bird, but nourishes its young with milk glands and possesses a coat of thick fur like a mammal. Platypus fur consists of waterproof hair that traps a layer of air next to the skin to help keep the animal warm in the cold water of its environment.[8] The platypus also has a duck-like bill that resembles a leather glove slipped onto its head. [9] Nonetheless, they were considered primitive animals by evolutionists because they are egg-laying. Now we know that they are not primitive; in fact, they possess several very advanced complex biological systems, including an electroreception sense used to locate prey.[10] It may look like a mashup of various animals, but, given its ecological niche, its design is very logical:

Their webbed feet, sprawled body and dense, waterproof fur are perfect for their semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their claws make them efficient diggers: they excavate tunnels around 5 meters long in riverbanks in which to live. And platypuses’ distinctive, duck-like bills allow them to search for crustaceans and insects while swimming underwater with their eyes, ears and noses shut.[11]

The Fossil Record

Many zoologists call the platypus a “living fossil” or a “persistent type” because it is an “ancient” animal that has “existed unchanged through enormous stretches of time.”[12] If platypus transitional fossils existed, they would not be difficult to identify because of the many major skeletal differences between them and other marsupials, reptiles, and placental mammals. For example, placentals have shoulder girdles that enable them to work a variety of environments, such as deep-water diving. Marsupials lack these structures.[13]

One primary reason the platypus is a major conundrum for evolutionists is that it possesses many “reptilian” characteristics including “oviparity and a therapsid-like shoulder girdle that evolutionists postulate have been lost in marsupial and placental animals.”[14] Others, having accepted the Darwinian account of the evolution of mammals, maintain that the platypus is a link between reptiles and mammals.[15]

The earliest confirmed platypus fossils closely resemble modern platypuses. They show no evidence of evolution from reptiles or any other animal. The fossil record of this animal, therefore, discredits Darwinism and supports the belief that platypuses were created as platypuses from the beginning. Sawal writes

Unfortunately, we have no fossil evidence …  of intermediate forms. The oldest evidence of platypuses in Australia consists of fossilized skulls dating from just 15 million years ago.[16]

Duck-billed Platypuses. Notice this fur-covered mammal has a duckbill, webbed duck feet and a body with short legs like a Dachshund. From Wikimedia Commons.

Why They Are So Strange

The platypus is one of the world’s most puzzling animals, among the strangest creatures existing today, possessing an “enigmatic mélange of reptilian (or birdlike), with obvious mammalian characters.” Rather than giving birth to live young, as other mammals do, they lay eggs like birds. They are classified as a mammal only because the females suckle their young after they hatch and the fact that they don’t look anything like birds.

It took more than 80 years just to work out how this animal fits into the tree of life. Since then, biologists have gone even further and found that it possesses a range of features that mean it is among the most unusual creatures on Earth. But it isn’t simply an oddity. As a mammal that shares many characteristics with birds and reptiles, the platypus holds the key to unlocking some fundamental evolutionary mysteries.[17]

Geneticists have finally mapped its entire genome and are beginning to understand why it is so strange. In spite of the headline of the Nature article, the genetic analysis found no evidence to support evolution. What was found was that platypuses, since they lay eggs like birds, have some genes that are similar to those in birds. Platypuses have hair like mammals, and, not unexpectedly, have some genes similar to mammals.

Genetic Comparisons

The Zhou study attempted to support evolution based on genetic comparisons. Instead they found “The first mammal was thought to have produced milk, laid eggs and possessed a cloaca. But there isn’t definitive evidence to confirm any of these assumptions. ‘It would be the holy grail if we could find a fossil mammal egg.’”[18] Facts such as this in the Zhou study are mixed with gross speculation. Note the following facts:

[Their] leathery bills are made of hardened gum tissues and, lacking teeth, platypuses use them to mash their food – sometimes employing stones to help crush harder items. Once swallowed, food travels straight from the esophagus to the intestine: platypuses, together with their echidna cousins, are the only mammals without a stomach.[19]

Then begins conjecture that attempts to account for their lack of a stomach by evolution. The authors opine that the stomach

evolved some 450 million years ago, well before platypuses came along, and why these animals [platypus] have lost theirs is unclear. One suggestion is that the shells in their diet are rich in calcium carbonate and would neutralize any stomach acids, making the organ redundant.[20]

Then some other interesting facts are mentioned:

When they aren’t hunting, platypuses rest. They can spend around 14 hours a day sleeping, including eight hours in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is more than any other animal. That’s odd, in humans REM sleep is associated with brain development and processing memories.[21]

This is followed by pure speculation about why REM sleep in platypuses is longer than in any other mammal:

Its abundance in platypuses suggests this type of sleep originated earlier in mammalian evolution than previously thought… and that its functions may have evolved separately to meet the needs of different species.[22]

Note how this “explanation’ avoids the real question, namely why, and for what reason do platypuses have longer REM sleep than any other mammal”? It likely has something to do with their lifestyle; possibly with their electrosensors that allow them to forage underwater with their eyes shut. Answering this question, instead of explaining it away by evolutionary storytelling, will help us to better understand these bizarre creatures. The peculiar reproductive behavior of the platypus is also a problem for evolution. Like birds and reptiles, monotremes have a cloaca, a single opening used for reproduction and excretion – which is where the name “monotreme” comes from.

The study also refutes another evolutionary idea:

Given that they lay eggs and produce milk, it is tempting to see monotremes as an evolutionary link between mammals and reptiles. [Also p]eople often think that mammals evolved from reptiles, but this couldn’t be further from the truth, says paleontologist Elsa Panciroli at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Synapsids (mammals) and sauropsids (reptiles and birds) evolved separately after splitting from a single lineage ….. “Up to that point, they were neither reptiles nor mammals; they were tetrapods,” says Panciroli.[23]

Summary

As is often true in the commercial world, advertising promises much but often delivers little of what it promises. When read carefully, this study, published in one of the most respected scientific magazines in the world, Nature, reveals how much of evolution consists of little more than just-so storytelling. Claims that the platypus genome reveals something about evolution are empty. Actually, the genome merely shows what is clear by observation, that animals which have bird-like traits can be expected logically to have some of the same genes that birds have.

I have often said that in the end Darwinian evolution will be finally refuted by its supporters. This study, and the articles based on it, are small steps in that direction.

Baby platypuses. From Wikimedia-Commons.

References

[1] Sawal, Ibrahim, The platypus: What nature’s weirdest mammal says about our origins, New Scientist, 5 May 2021.

[2] Zhou, Yang, Platypus and echidna genomes reveal mammalian biology and evolution, Nature 592: 756-761, 6 January 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-03039-0.pdf.

[3] Zhou, 2021, p. 756. Italics added.

[4] Zhou, 2021, p. 757. Italics added.

[5] Zhou, 2021, p. 758. Italics added.

[6] Zhou, 2021, p. 761. Italics added.

[7] Zhou, et al., 2021.

[8] Gould, S.J., 1985, To be a platypus, Natural History 94(8): 10-15, p. 11.

[9] Gould, S.J., 1991, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 277.

[10] Gould, 1985, p. 11.

[11] Sawal, 2021.

[12] Smith, H., Living Fossils, New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company,1982, p. 24.

[13] Stokstad, E.,  A bonanza of bones. Science 298(5595): 955-957, 2002, p. 955.

[14] Ennos, R., Trees, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 2001, p. 5.

[15] Sarfati, 2008, By Design: Evidence for Nature’s Designer—the God of the Bible. Australia: Creation Book Publishers, pp. 126-127.

[16] Sawal, 2021.

[17] Sawal, 2021.

[18] Sawal, 2021.

[19] Sawal, 2021.

[20] Sawal, 2021.

[21] Sawal, 2021.

[22] Sawal, 2021.

[23] Sawal, 2021.



Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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