Think of a platypus: they lay eggs (that hatch into so-called platypups), they produce milk without nipples and venom without fangs and they can detect electricity. Or a wombat: their teeth never stop growing, they poo cubes and they defend themselves with reinforced rears. Platypuses, possums, wombats, echidnas, devils, kangaroos, quolls, dibblers, dunnarts, kowaris: Australia has some truly astonishing mammals with incredible, unfamiliar features. But how does the world regard these creatures? And what does that mean for their conservation?
In Platypus Matters, naturalist Jack Ashby shares his love for these often-misunderstood animals. Informed by his own experiences meeting living marsupials and egg-laying mammals on fieldwork in Tasmania and mainland Australia, as well as his work with thousands of zoological specimens collected for museums over the last 200-plus years, Ashby's tale not only explains the extraordinary lives of these animals, but the historical mysteries surrounding them and the myths that persist (especially about the platypus). He also reveals the toll these myths can take.
Ashby makes it clear that calling these animals 'weird' or 'primitive' – or incorrectly implying that Australia is an 'evolutionary backwater' – a perception that can be traced back to the country's colonial history – has undermined conservation: Australia now has the worst mammal extinction rate of anywhere on Earth. Important, timely and written with humour and wisdom by a scientist and self-described platypus nerd, this celebration of Australian wildlife will open eyes and change minds about how we contemplate and interact with the natural world – everywhere.
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 makes the case that Australia's wildlife is not a collection of oddities and species that can kill you, as it is most often, and even well-meaningly portrayed. He explores how this traditional narrative about Australia's native animals arose, how it is incorrect, and shows why it matters. Some of the species met along the way, including echidnas, wombats, Tasmanian devils and scaly-tailed possums, leave lovely impressions that will be lasting portrayals. Both serious and fun, Platypus Matters is compelling reading."
– Kristofer M. Helgen, chief scientist and director, Australian Museum Research Institute
"Platypus Matters is an original, charming book with a contemporary message. Ashby seeks to convince us of the importance of Australia's mammals, using the platypus as a worthy ambassador. Most importantly, with a combination of beguiling stories and impassioned arguments, he explains the very real consequences of devaluing Australian wildlife for the survival of this unique fauna. Ashby's raw enthusiasm as a naturalist and love of sharing a good anecdote make for entertaining reading, but the final chapters take a sobering turn, and rightly so. His book is a clear call to action to address the urgency of the current extinction crisis. It's also a bloody good read."
– Katherine Tuft, general manager, Arid Recovery (Australia)
"Timely, important and multifaceted, Platypus Matters is a lesson in the evolution of mammals, a historical journey and an adventure book packed with exciting stories of Ashby's global travels. Most profound is the book's intellectual exploration of colonial perspectives and how they shaped the world's understanding of and subsequent relationship with Australia's unique fauna – to this day. Fascinating and enlightening. Only Ashby could have written this book, and I absolutely loved it!"
– Georgia Ward-Fear, Macquarie University, co-founder, Cane Toad Coalition