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5 Nov, 2013 12:45

'Godzilla platypus' used to roam Australia waters, new fossil reveals

'Godzilla platypus' used to roam Australia waters, new fossil reveals

Huge toothed platypuses inhabited Australia millions of years ago. So proves the stunning new fossil find of a ‘Godzilla’-like relative of the cute, duck-billed creature. The discovery also breaks down a couple of theories.

Twice the size of a normal platypus – about one meter in length – the strange relative was first identified by a single distinctive tooth, which was discovered in Riversleigh, in the north-eastern state of Queensland – a World Heritage site bristling with fossil remains.

The giant platypus “pretty well blew our minds,” admitted Mike Archer to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archer is a professor at the University of South Wales. ‘Platypus Godzilla’ is the name he chose for the animal.

Columbia University PhD candidate Rebecca Pian identified the suspected new species on Tuesday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.  

But the fact of the find is not the only thing that startled scientists. Several of their long-held notions about the evolution of the platypus have been challenged, not discounting the fact that the timid, nocturnal animal in its modern form is already a combination of bird, mammal and reptile.

Scientists initially thought that the platypus had gradually lost its teeth in the course of evolution and also lost its giant size. However, the new find possessed sizable teeth, leading scientists to believe that it is not an immediate ancestor.

"We didn't expect this. It's a huge platypus at the wrong time. But there it was," Archer said.

"Discovery of this new species was a shock to us because prior to this, the fossil record suggested that the evolutionary tree of platypuses was a relatively linear one," he continued, adding that the scientific community now realizes “that there were unanticipated side branches on this tree, some of which became gigantic."

The professor added that the size of the animal was a very significant factor back in the day and few animals would risk venturing into platypus-infested waters, apart from a crocodile. The nature of its tooth meant it could chew through the shell of a turtle.

The tooth, discovered by Pian, is so unique that scientists believe it is an isolated species.

“We know it's a platypus, we also know it's very different from any other toothed platypus we've seen before," Archer continued.

Pian’s research supports the view that even this incomplete platypus is a monumental find contributing to the overall understanding of this mysterious nocturnal creature.

Plenty of similarities are also present, including the animal’s aquatic habitat, living in freshwater pools in forest areas covering Riversleigh millions of years ago. So is its diet.

Scientists also remembered the earlier hypothesis about the different kinds of the platypus over the years, and this newest discovery supports that.

This is the fourth previously-unseen animal discovered in Australia in under a month, following a recent trip to the previously unexplored forested area of Cape York Peninsula, which yielded a primitive-looking leaf-tailed Gecko – among other species – and is expected to produce more discoveries on return trips coming in the near future.