Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXIII: Scientific Names – Final Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! category: Scientific Names (10-10-2007)

FJ! Clue: It was first given a scientific name meaning “flat-footed duck”; it was later given one meaning “birdlike snout”

Correct response

The gist: OK, regular ducks have flat feet and birdlike snouts. But it’s probably not them. 

Instead, it’s the king of the crazy mammals, the platypus.* I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about the eastern Australian animal’s wacky features (like its poisonous ankle spurs, its electrolocution, and its reptilian splayed legs) – instead, let’s talk about its history and name. While of course it’s been well-known to indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years, it was first encountered by Europeans in 1798, when John Hunter, Governor of New South Wales (of which state it is now an official emblem) sent a skin and a sketch to England. British naturalists were understandably baffled, with many considering the animal a hoax – but as more specimens were recovered, it became clear that it was just an extreme oddity (of which the fauna of Australia has in spades), not a lie. Its common name comes from the Greek for “flat-footed,” platys meaning flat or broad (like Plato’s broad face, from which he supposedly got his name), like how octopus means “eight-footed.” Unfortunately, in the scientific taxonomies Platypus was already in use for a genus of beetle, so it was given the more unwieldy genus name of Ornithorhynchus, meaning “bird-snout,” and the species name anatinus, which means “duck-like.” The common appellation “duck-billed platypus” is usually not more than a courtesy to the animal, although it can also distinguish the extant animal from its extinct toothier cousin the Riversleigh platypus.

An illustration of two platypuses (or platypi in pseudo-Latin, or platypodes in “proper” Greek) from 1863

The clue: Well, this one really shouldn’t be too hard – the clue gives not one, but two pretty decent descriptions of the animal, after all. Like I said, it’s not going to be a duck since they were mentioned by name in the clue, so that should be a hint that you need to think a little broader to come up this one. Unless you were to get stuck thinking of other birds, you should come up with the platypus pretty quickly; it’s not like they’re terribly obscure animals (as Final Jeopardy! responses are usually not very obscure). As a final hint, you might know or figure out, even without knowing any Greek, that the “-pus” part of the animal’s name refers to their feet, which you could then connect with the “flat-footed” bit in the clue.

In Jeopardy!: The strange creature appears in 42 regular clues and just this one FJ! clue in the J!Archive. Common themes include, of course, its weirdness: its egg-laying, its webbed feet, its bill, its poison, etc. Other commonly mentioned topics are its country of origin (11 clues have “Australia,” some more have “down-under” and the like), and “monotreme,” the order of egg-laying mammals that includes the platypus and the echidna species (another 11 clues). Also, apparently there’s a heroic platypus named Perry on the cartoon Phineas and Pherb – he gets a clue about his adventures against the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz.

*Of course, there are waaaay crazier animals out there if you look beyond the cute ones, and even more if you look beyond the multicellular ones.

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