Watch the #ByTheBook Talk for Jack Ashby’s “Platypus Matters”
Scientifically informed and funny, Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals is a firsthand account of some of Australia’s most wonderfully unique animals—and how our perceptions impact their futures. When a platypus first appeared in British scientific society, some were certain it was taxidermic trickery—with a duck’s bill and feet and a mole’s body. And as the nineteenth-century understanding of living platypuses grew, these animals became the focus of a dispute about the nature of evolution. A venomous, egg-laying “monotreme” (meaning it has one opening for its reproductive system and expelling waste) served as a kind of missing link in mammal evolution. That 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 platypuses, “platypup”—aims to repair the platypus’s reputation by honoring these and other Australian mammals, including the possum, echidna, devil, and kangaroo. He introduces readers to the animals’ unusual traits and entertains with stories of his experiences in the field finding them. Through it all, Ashby reveals how both the lasting legacy of our historical perceptions and the massive habitat loss resulting from climate change pose serious challenges to these species’ conservation. Written with humor, deep knowledge, and affection, this celebration of Australian wildlife will open eyes and change minds about how we contemplate and interact with the natural world—everywhere.
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, London; former president of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society; Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomology Society; radio presenter; Twitter doyenne @flygirlNHM; and the author of The Secret Life of Flies, The Inside Out of Flies, and A Bug’s World. Ranging from the astonishingly powerful armored rear-ends of wombats (and their cube-shaped feces) to cockroach milk, fly/mammal parallels, the extinction of the thylacine, the ethics of collecting past and present, and much more, Ashby and McAlister’s discussion of Platypus Matters and beyond is not to be missed. Watch below!
Jack Ashby is the assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and an honorary research 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.