Watch the #ByTheBook talk for Jack Ashby’s “Platypus Matters”

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Scientifically informed and funny, Platypus Matters: the extraordinary story of Australian mammals is a first-hand account of some of Australia’s most wonderfully unique animals and how our perceptions impact their future. When a platypus first appeared in British scientific society, some were sure it was a taxidermy ruse – with a duck’s beak and legs and a mole’s body. And as understanding of living platypus grew in the 19th century, these animals became the center of a dispute over the nature of evolution. A venomous, oviparous “monotreme” (meaning it has an opening for its reproductive system and waste expulsion) served as a kind of missing link in mammalian evolution. This gave the platypus the distinction of being a so-called primitive mammal, an assessment reinforced by colonialist views of Australia. In this book, Jack Ashby, museum curator, zoologist and creator of the delightful neologism for baby platypus, “platypup”, aims to repair the reputation of the platypus by honoring these and other Australian mammals, including the opossum, the echidna, the devil and the kangaroo. . He introduces readers to unusual animal traits and entertains with stories of his experiences in the field to find them. Through it all, Ashby reveals how both the enduring legacy of our historical perceptions and the massive loss of habitat resulting from climate change pose serious challenges to the conservation of these species. Written with humour, insight and affection, this celebration of Australian wildlife will open eyes and change minds about how we view and interact with the natural world, everywhere.

The UChicago Press recently had the joy of hosting Jack Ashby in a wide-ranging conversation with Erica McAlister, Senior Curator of Flies at the Natural History Museum in London; past president of the Society of Amateur Entomologists; Honorary Member of the Royal Entomological Society; radio host; Dean Twitter @flygirlNHM; and the author of The secret life of flies, Inside the fliesand A world of insects. Ranging from the surprisingly powerful armored hindquarters of wombats (and their cube-like droppings) to cockroach milk, fly/mammal parallels, the extinction of the thylacine, the collecting ethics of the past and present, and much more, Ashby and McAlister’s discussion of Platypus Questions and beyond is not to be missed. Watch below!


Jack Ashby is Deputy Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. He is the author of Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects and lives in Hertfordshire. Ashby can be found on Twitter @JackDAshby.

Platypus Questions is available now! Find it on our website or at your favorite bookstore.

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