Duck-billed PlatypusNational Geographic describes it as being “among nature's most unlikely animals”—and indeed it is. The platypus—or “duck-billed platypus,” as it is also called—baffled the scientific world from the start. 

“Discovered” by Europeans in Australia in 1797, the creature appears to be made from an assortment of leftover parts: the bill and feet of a duck, the tail of a beaver, and the body and fur of an otter.  Add the egg-laying habit of birds to the mix, and the result is something that simply should not exist.

Not surprisingly, the platypus was for years a source of controversy. To some scientists, it was obviously a hoax, the product of deceitful taxidermists known for piecing together parts of different animals and then claiming to have discovered a new species. 

The name, too, was the subject of great debate. Originally called Platypus anatinus (“flat-footed, duck-like”), the creature underwent a series of name changes—in part because it was learned that the term Platypus had already been applied to a genus of beetles, and also because one of the scientists studying the animal decided it should be known as Ornithorhynchus paradoxus, or “paradoxical bird bill.” The issue of the name was settled with a compromise: Ornithorhynchus anatinus or “duck-like bird-bill.”

But another issue remained: How did such a creature come to be? Attempts to explain the mystery of the platypus are hardly satisfying; “God made it that way” never really works. What we are left with, then, is the simple yet most profound of questions: “Why?”

“Live your questions now,” the poet Rilke tells us, “and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” Are we, as humans, no less unlikely than the platypus? Are we, with our animal bodies and inscrutable minds, no less complexly made?