The egg-laying, venom-spurred, electroreceptive, and thoroughly astonishing duck-billed platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus has always been one of my favourite wild animals, and even today I can still readily recall how, as a small child during the early 1960s, my tiny plastic platypuses from my model zoo would, if left overlooked on a carpet or rug at home, unerringly find themselves sucked up into my unsuspecting mother's vacuum cleaner, resulting in an all-too-familiar, ominous clattering sound that always swiftly ensued before they were ejected in varying states of mangled morphology!
Famed as an exclusively Australian oddity in the modern-day living state, no platypus species, from either the present or the palaeontological past, has ever been confirmed from North America – which is why the following couple of cryptozoological cases have long intrigued me.
A platypus being shown to the public (© TwoWings/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Mystery beast investigators everywhere owe a great debt of thanks to longstanding cryptozoological and herpetological enthusiast Chad Arment, author of The Search For Hidden Animals (1995), for establishing a highly successful internet cryptozoological discussion group – firstname.lastname@example.org (subsequently email@example.com) – that lasted for many years online. As its webmaster, Chad oversaw discussions concerning all manner of fascinating cryptids, including numerous examples not aired outside of cyberspace. Among the most remarkable, however, is one that Chad himself brought to the group's attention - the exceedingly curious case of the putative platypus from San Luis Valley, in Colorado.
In a short cz@onelist posting of 18 June 1999, Chad referred to Christopher O'Brien's book The Mysterious Valley (1996), in which O'Brien had briefly mentioned that strange animals have been seen for many years in San Luis Valley and that during the 1960s some individuals claimed to have found a supposed platypus in a high mountain lake within the Blanca Peaks area.
Platypus swimming (© Klaus/Wikipedia CCBY-SA 2.0 licence)
Not surprisingly, Chad was curious to learn whether anyone else knew anything further. On 7 August 1999, Colorado-based cz@onelist crypto-contributor Bobbie Short posted an e-mail received by her that same day from a correspondent, Rob Alley, concerning this same subject. It read as follows:
Several years ago Mike F., a successful Ketchikan businessman, contractor and retired fisherman asked me following a chat about Sasquatches whether I had ever studied or read anything about platypuses in North America, specifically whether I knew of any prehistoric giant forms. When I got back to him on this and replied that there may have been a slightly larger earlier form known but not in N.A., but nothing really big, he looked puzzled. I asked him why and after a moment's hesitation he answered that as a young man forty or so years ago he had stood on shore near Mountain Point south of Ketchikan [in Alaska, USA] and spent a minute watching an animal in the water at very close range that simply resembled a giant platypus. He described the creature as dark with a bill and feet like a platypus only the overall size was six feet or possibly greater. He gave no mention of the tail if there was one. The sighting was in shallow water on a rocky shoreline and the creature was close to the surface. I could probably get a few more details such as season and so on. This man is an experienced commercial fisherman and stated categorically that it was not a known species of seal. Ocean temp here doesn't vary much from 50 degrees. All I have right now.
I've never seen or known of a platypus sitting upright – but if one did, or could, it may look like this wonderful 19th-Century natural history book engraving (public domain)
The platypus is an egg-laying, monotreme mammal, and as noted by Rob Alley there are indeed larger species of monotreme on record, but these are all fossil forms, from Australasia (one such species, originally thought to have been a giant platypus, has since been reclassified as a zaglossid spiny anteater). In more recent years, fossil remains of monotremes have also been uncovered in the New World, but currently only in South America.
These latter remains consist of a single upper and two lower teeth, which were found in Patagonia, Argentina, and date from the lower Palaeocene epoch (61 million years ago). In 1992, the species from which they originated was formally christened Monotrematum sudamericanum (but more recently some researchers have reclassified it within the existing Australian fossil genus Obdurodon). Its teeth are approximately twice as large as those of any other species of platypus, living or fossil, and it is currently the only platypus species known from outside Australia.
Platypus, from Wild Life of the World, A Descriptive Survey of the Geographical Distribution of Animals Volume III, by Richard Lydekker, 1916 (public domain)
As for living representatives, however, only one platypus species, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is known, and that is of course exclusively Australian and freshwater. So if it was definitely not a seal, just what did Michael F. see near Mountain Point? An otter is the most likely non-cryptozoological possibility. Yet if his sighting was as good as it appears to have been, such an identity can hardly reconcile his description of a platypus-like bill and feet.
As for the mountain lake, unnamed by Christopher O'Brien: in an e-mail to me of 26 September 1999, Bobbie stated that Blanca Peak is in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo mountains and the only lake up that high (approximately 14,300 ft) is Lake Como, so this is presumably the body of water in which the creature was sighted.
Nevertheless, these two mystery platypus-lookalike beasts - one freshwater in Colorado, the other marine in Alaska - remain among the most tenuous, but also most tantalising, to have emerged from the depths of the Crypto-Web.
And finally – Ever imagined Ernst Stavro Blofeld as a cryptozoologist? Imagine no longer: "Good evening, Dr Shuker, I've been expecting you..." (© Dr Karl Shuker)
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.