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Australian Scientists Identify ‘Age of Monotremes’ Evidence of the oldest known platypus and a new species ‘echidnapus’

Australian Museum 5 mins read
Six monotremes living in the same place at the same time, 100 million years ago at Lightning Ridge, NSW. Image PeterSchouten

Monday, 27 May 2024, Sydney: Published today in the Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontologyevidence of an ‘Age of Monotremes’ has been unearthed by a team of Australian scientists at the Australian Museum (AM), Museums Victoria (MV) and Australian Opal Centre.

The findings were led by two renowned mammalogists, Honorary Associate of the Australian Museum, Professor Tim Flannery; and Professor Kris Helgen, Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI).

Found in the Lightning Ridge opal fields, NSW, the opalised jaws date back to the Cenomanian Age of the Cretaceous Period, between 102 million to 96.6 million years ago.

Professor Flannery said the research reveals that 100 million years ago, Australia was home to a diversity of monotremes, of which the platypus and the echidna are the only surviving descendants.

Today, Australia is known as a land of marsupials, but discovering these new fossils is the first indication that Australia was previously home to a diversity of monotremes. It’s like discovering a whole new civilisation,” Professor Flannery said.

Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, Professor Kris Helgen, said the three new species demonstrate combinations of features not previously seen before in other living or fossil monotremes. One of the most striking of the new monotremesOpalios splendens, retains characteristics of the earliest known monotremes, but also some that foreshadow adaptations in the living monotremes, the echidnas and platypus.

Opalios splendens sits on a place in the evolutionary tree prior to the evolution of the common ancestor of the monotremes we have today. Its overall anatomy is probably quite like the platypus, but with features of the jaw and snout a bit more like an echidna – you might call it an ‘echidnapus’,” Professor Helgen said.

“The story of how our egg-laying mammals evolved is ‘toothy to toothless’ on the oldest monotreme, Teinolophos trusleri, which dates back to Victoria 130 million years ago. What we see at Lightning Ridge is that by 100 million years ago, some of the monotremes still have five molars but some of them are down to three,” Professor Helgen said.

Professor Flannery highlighted that today, echidnas have no teeth, and platypuses too are essentially toothless.

“Adult platypus have no teeth, though juveniles have rudimentary molars. Just when and why adult platypus lost their teeth after nearly 100 million years is a mystery we think we have solved. It may have been competition with the Australian water rat, which arrived in Australia within the last 2 million years, which caused platypus to seek out softer, slipperier food best processed with the leathery pads that adults use today,” Professor Flannery said.

“What is so unusual about this uniquely Australian story is that in one snapshot we see six different egg-laying mammals living together in Lightning Ridge over 100 million years ago. All of them are holding potential evolutionary destinies that can go off in different directions, and all of them are deep distant ancestors and relatives of the current living monotremes.”

Dr Matthew McCurry, Curator of Palaeontology, Australian Museum, said the discovery of three new genera of monotremes helps to piece together their remarkable evolutionary story. 

“There are six species of monotremes, including the three newly described here, within the Cenomanian Lightning Ridge fauna of New South Wales making it the most diverse monotreme assemblage on record. Four species are known from a single specimen, suggesting that diversity remains underrepresented. This discovery adds more than 20 per cent to the previously known diversity of monotremes,” Dr McCurry said. 

“We have very few monotreme fossils, and so finding new fossils can tell us more about where they lived, what they looked like and how changes in the environment influenced their evolution. Every significant monotreme fossil currently known fits into this evolutionary story, from Teinolophos, the tiny shrew-like creature in Antarctica 130 million years ago to the present day,” Dr McCurry said.

Co-authors from Museums Victoria Research Institute, Dr Thomas Rich, Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, and Honorary Associate Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich AO said these curious, unique and ancient Australian animals still have the power to interest the scientific world.

“The platypus and echidna are iconic Australian species. The discovery of these several new species in one small area suggest that the family tree of the egg laying monotremes is far more complicated than the living platypus and echidna alone suggest,” Dr Thomas Rich said.

“As the fieldwork continues in the Mesozoic of Australia, we continue to increase our understanding of how life changed over time. This, to me, is what makes science so exciting,” Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich AO said.

The fossils were found by Elizabeth Smith and her daughter Clytie of the Australian Opal Centre in Lightning Ridge, who have spent decades working and searching over the opal fields.

“Opal fossils are rare, but opalised monotreme fossils are infinitely more rare, as there’s one monotreme fragment to a million other pieces. We don’t know when, or exactly where, they’ll turn up,” Elizabeth Smith said.

“These specimens are a revelation. They show the world that long before Australia became the land of pouched mammals, marsupials, this was a land of furry egg-layers – monotremes. It seems that 100 million years ago, there were more monotremes at Lightning Ridge than anywhere else on earth, past or present,” Elizabeth said.

# ENDS #

Editor’s Note: Images, biographies, research paper here.                               


Key Facts:

100 million years ago Australia home to monotremes

 


About us:

About the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. The AM’s mission is to ignite wonder, inspire debate and drive change. The AM’s vision is to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The AM commits to transforming the conversation around climate change, the environment and wildlife conservation; to being a strong advocate for First Nations cultures; and to continuing to develop world-leading science, collections, exhibitions and education programs. With 22 million objects and specimens and the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM is not only a dynamic source of reliable scientific information on some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, but also an important site of cultural exchange and learning.

 

About Museums Victoria Research Institute
Museums Victoria is the largest public museums organisation in Australia, and the Museums Victoria Research Institute focuses on addressing some of the biggest and most complex challenges of our time. For 170 years, Museums Victoria’s research teams have drawn on the museum’s collections comprising of more than 17.2 million items to answer questions about our rapidly evolving world. First Peoples’ knowledge, history and culture are central to our research, reflecting Museums Victoria’s core commitment to placing First Peoples’ living cultures at the core of our practice. Our vision is to create a world-leading multidisciplinary and collaborative research program that creates new knowledge and perspectives that will shape how we safeguard and protect our places, heritage and peoples into the future.  In 2024, Museums Victoria celebrates its 170th anniversary. The important role of our organisation in telling stories that connect the past and the present, and help us imagine the future, remains as vital as ever.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               

 

About the Australian Opal Centre

Founded in 2003, the Australian Opal Centre (AOC) is a regional museum with international reach, focused on the scientific and cultural resources of Australia's unique opal fields. A not-for-profit organisation, the AOC aims for excellence in geological, palaeontological and gemmological research, education and training, heritage and cultural aspects of these inland areas. The AOC is building Australia’s premiere public collection of opalised fossils and opal-related geological specimens. We conduct exploration, discovery and citizen science projects on the natural and human history of the fields, collaborating with Australian and international scientists in these investigations. We are deeply committed to First Nations people, custodians over millennia of opal country across Australia, and to the Yuwaarlaraay, Yuwaarlayaay and Gamilaraay nations of the Lightning Ridge district. The AOC is vital to economic development of disadvantaged and remote opal-producing regions of outback NSW, South Australia and Queensland.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               

 


Contact details:

Media Contacts:

Museums Victoria: Talia Schirripa, Media & Communications Officer, TaSchirripa@museum.vic.gov.au  /0414 161 167

Australian Museum: Claire Vince, Media Advisor, Claire.vince@australian.museum / 0468 726 910

Opal Centre: Elizabeth Smith, elizabethtsmith@exemail.com.au

 

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