Napoleon and the Platypus

Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR
French 1778-1846
Platypus (Ornithorynque) (1802-04)
watercolour, pencil
24.0 x 38.0 cm
Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 80033)
Photo: Alain Havard
Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR
French 1778-1846
Ornithorhynchus anatinus
pencil
27.5 x 44.0 cm
Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre
Credit line (inv. 80269)
Photo: Havard Alain

Did you know that it was a French Zoologist, Étienne Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, who recognised that the platypus belonged to the rarest of families – Monotremes (along with the echidna)?

It was first spotted by the colonizing British in 1797 and given the name Ornithorhyncus (combining the Greek words for bird and nose). But its existence baffled scientists for decades and it was widely believed that it must be a hoax. Sir Joseph Banks, the eminent British naturalist, doubted that such a creature could exist until he was sent a preserved specimen from New South Wales by Governor King.

But it was Banks who first delivered such a specimen to France in 1802 as a gift to fellow scientist and friend, Georges Cuvier at the Natural History Museum, and where Napoleon was fascinated enough to closely examine the specimen and join in discussions about the classification of the newly discovered mammal.

The Naturalist François Peron was the first Frenchman to study this “ultimate expression of the strangeness of Australia’s animals” while in Botany Bay during Baudin’s 1880-1804 expedition to Terres Australes. He ensured that one of the expedition’s artists, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, made accurate studies of this curious animal, which was warm-blooded, laid eggs, had digit claws, no teeth or mammae and only a single cloaca (opening) for both excretion and giving birth – the details of which are carefully recorded in his beautiful watercolour included in the Napoleon Exhibition.

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