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    6. A Fossil Continent

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    Chapter 7
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    If an intelligent Australian colonist were suddenly to be translated
    backward from Collins Street, Melbourne, into the flourishing woods of
    the secondary geological period--say about the precise moment of time
    when the English chalk downs were slowly accumulating, speck by speck,
    on the silent floor of some long-forgotten Mediterranean--the
    intelligent colonist would look around him with a sweet smile of
    cheerful recognition, and say to himself in some surprise, 'Why, this is
    just like Australia.' The animals, the trees, the plants, the insects,
    would all more or less vividly remind him of those he had left behind
    him in his happy home of the southern seas and the nineteenth century.
    The sun would have moved back on the dial of ages for a few million
    summers or so, indefinitely (in geology we refuse to be bound by dates),
    and would have landed him at last, to his immense astonishment, pretty
    much at the exact point whence he first started.

    In other words, with a few needful qualifications, to be made hereafter,
    Australia is, so to speak, a fossil continent, a country still in its
    secondary age, a surviving fragment of the primitive world of the chalk
    period or earlier ages. Isolated from all the remainder of the earth
    about the beginning of the tertiary epoch, long before the mammoth and
    the mastodon had yet dreamt of appearing upon the stage of existence,
    long before the first shadowy ancestor of the horse had turned tail on
    nature's rough draft of the still undeveloped and unspecialised lion,
    long before the extinct dinotheriums and gigantic Irish elks and
    colossal giraffes of late tertiary times had even begun to run their
    race on the broad plains of Europe and America, the Australian continent
    found itself at an early period of its development cut off entirely from
    all social intercourse with the remainder of our planet, and turned upon
    itself, like the German philosopher, to evolve its own plants and
    animals out of its own inner consciousness. The natural consequence was
    that progress in Australia has been absurdly slow, and that the country
    as a whole has fallen most woefully behind the times in all matters
    pertaining to the existence of life upon its surface. Everybody knows
    that Australia as a whole is a very peculiar and original continent; its
    peculiarity, however, consists, at bottom, for the most part in the fact
    that it still remains at very nearly the same early point of development
    which Europe had attained a couple of million years ago or thereabouts.
    "Advance, Australia," says the national motto; and, indeed, it is quite
    time nowadays that Australia should advance; for, so far, she has been
    left out of the running for some four mundane ages or so at a rough

    Example, says the wisdom of our ancestors, is better than precept; so
    perhaps, if I take a single example to start with, I shall make the
    principle I wish to illustrate a trifle clearer to the European
    comprehension. In Australia, when Cook or Van Diemen first visited it,
    there were no horses, cows, or sheep; no rabbits, weasels, or cats; no
    indigenous quadrupeds of any sort except the pouched mammals or
    marsupials, familiarly typified to every one of us by the mamma kangaroo
    in Regent's Park, who carries the baby kangaroos about with her, neatly
    deposited in the sac or pouch which nature has provided for them instead
    of a cradle. To this rough generalisation, to be sure, two special
    exceptions must needs be made; namely, the noble Australian black-fellow
    himself, and the dingo or wild dog whose ancestors no doubt came to the
    country in the same ship with him, as the brown rat came to England with
    George I. of blessed memory. But of these two solitary representatives
    of the later and higher Asiatic fauna 'more anon'; for the present we
    may regard it as approximately true that aboriginal and unsophisticated
    Australia in the lump was wholly given over, on its first discovery, to
    kangaroos, phalangers, dasyures, wombats, and other quaint marsupial
    animals, with names as strange and clumsy as their forms.

    Now, who and what are the marsupials as a family, viewed in the dry
    light of modern science? Well, they are simply one of the very oldest
    mammalian families, and therefore, I need hardly say, in the levelling
    and topsy-turvy view of evolutionary biology, the least entitled to
    consideration or respect from rational observers. For of course in the
    kingdom of science the last shall be first, and the first last; it is
    the oldest families that are accounted the worst, while the best
    families mean always the newest. Now, the earliest mammals to appear on
    earth were creatures of distinctly marsupial type. As long ago as the
    time when the red marl of Devonshire and the blue lias of Lyme Regis
    were laid down on the bed of the muddy sea that once covered the surface
    of Dorset and the English Channel, a little creature like the kangaroo
    rats of Southern Australia lived among the plains of what is now the
    south of England. In the ages succeeding the deposition of the red marl
    Europe seems to have been broken up into an archipelago of coral reefs
    and atolls; and the islands of this ancient oolitic ocean were tenanted
    by numbers of tiny ancestral marsupials, some of which approached in
    appearance the pouched ant-eaters of Western Australia, while others
    resembled rather the phalangers and wombats, or turned into excellent
    imitation carnivores, like our modern friend the Tasmanian devil. Up to
    the end of the time when the chalk deposits of Surrey, Kent, and Sussex
    were laid down, indeed, there is no evidence of the existence anywhere
    in the world of any mammals differing in type from those which now
    inhabit Australia. In other words, so far as regards mammalian life, the
    whole of the world had then already reached pretty nearly the same point
    of evolution that poor Australia still sticks at.

    About the beginning of the tertiary period, however, just after the
    chalk was all deposited, and just before the comparatively modern clays
    and sandstones of the London basin began to be laid down, an arm of the
    sea broke up the connection which once subsisted between Australia and
    the rest of the world, probably by a land bridge, _viâ_ Java, Sumatra,
    the Malay peninsula, and Asia generally. 'But how do you know,' asks the
    candid inquirer, 'that such a connection ever existed at all?' Simply
    thus, most laudable investigator--because there are large land mammals
    in Australia. Now, large land mammals do not swim across a broad ocean.
    There are none in New Zealand, none in the Azores, none in Fiji, none in
    Tahiti, none in Madeira, none in Teneriffe--none, in short, in any
    oceanic island which never at any time formed part of a great continent.
    How could there be, indeed? The mammals must necessarily have got there
    from somewhere; and whenever we find islands like Britain, or Japan, or
    Newfoundland, or Sicily, possessing large and abundant indigenous
    quadrupeds, of the same general type as adjacent continents, we see at
    once that the island must formerly have been a mere peninsula, like
    Italy or Nova Scotia at the present day. The very fact that Australia
    incloses a large group of biggish quadrupeds, whose congeners once
    inhabited Europe and America, suffices in itself to prove beyond
    question that uninterrupted land communication must once have existed
    between Australia and those distant continents.

    In fact, to this day a belt of very deep sea, known as Wallace's Line,
    from the great naturalist who first pointed out its far-reaching
    zoological importance, separates what is called by science 'the
    Australian province' on the southwest from 'the Indo-Malayan province'
    to the north and east of it. This belt of deep sea divides off sharply
    the plants and animals of the Australian type from those of the common
    Indian and Burmese pattern. South of Wallace's Line we now find several
    islands, big and small, including New Guinea, Australia, Tasmania, the
    Moluccas, Celebes, Timor, Amboyna, and Banda. All these lands, whose
    precise geographical position on the map must of course be readily
    remembered, in this age of school boards and universal examination, by
    every pupil-teacher and every Girton girl, are now divided by minor
    straits of much shallower water; but they all stand on a great submarine
    bank, and obviously formed at one time parts of the same wide Australian
    continent, because animals of the Australian type are still found in
    every one of them. No Indian or Malayan animal, however, of the larger
    sort (other than birds) is to be discovered anywhere south of Wallace's
    Line. That narrow belt of deep sea, in short, forms an ocean barrier
    which has subsisted there without alteration ever since the end of the
    secondary period. From that time to this, as the evidence shows us,
    there has never been any direct land communication between Australia and
    any part of the outer world beyond that narrow line of division.

    Some years ago, in fact, a clever hoax took the world by surprise for a
    moment, under the audacious title of 'Captain Lawson's Adventures in New
    Guinea.' The gallant captain, or his unknown creator in some London
    lodging, pretended to have explored the Papuan jungles, and there to
    have met with marvellous escapes from terrible beasts of the common
    tropical Asiatic pattern--rhinoceroses, tigers, monkeys, and leopards.
    Everybody believed the new Munchausen at first, except the zoologists.
    Those canny folks saw through the wicked hoax on the very first blush of
    it. If there were rhinoceroses in Papua, they must have got there by an
    overland route. If there had ever been a land connection between New
    Guinea and the Malay region, then, since Australian animals range into
    New Guinea, Malayan animals would have ranged into Australia, and we
    should find Victoria and New South Wales at the present day peopled by
    tapirs, orang-outangs, wild boars, deer, elephants, and squirrels, like
    those which now people Borneo, instead of, or side by side with, the
    kangaroos, wombats, and other marsupials, which, as we know, actually
    form the sole indigenous mammalian population of Greater Britain beneath
    the Southern Cross. Of course, in the end, the mysterious and tremendous
    Captain Lawson proved to be a myth, an airy nothing upon whom
    imagination had bestowed a local habitation (in New Guinea) and a name
    (not to be found in the Army List). Wallace's Line was saved from
    reproach, and the intrusive rhinoceros was banished without appeal from
    the soil of Papua.

    After the deep belt of open sea was thus established between the bigger
    Australian continent and the Malayan region, however, the mammals of the
    great mainlands continued to develop on their own account, in accordance
    with the strictest Darwinian principles, among the wider plains of their
    own habitats. The competition there was fiercer and more general; the
    struggle for life was bloodier and more arduous. Hence, while the
    old-fashioned marsupials continued to survive and to evolve slowly along
    their own lines in their own restricted southern world, their
    collateral descendants in Europe and Asia and America or elsewhere went
    on progressing into far higher, stronger, and better adapted forms--the
    great central mammalian fauna. In place of the petty phalangers and
    pouched ant-eaters of the oolitic period, our tertiary strata in the
    larger continents show us a rapid and extraordinary development of the
    mammalian race into monstrous creatures, some of them now quite extinct,
    and some still holding their own undisturbed in India, Africa, and the
    American prairies. The palæotherium and the deinoceras, the mastodon and
    the mammoth, the huge giraffes and antelopes of sunnier times, succeed
    to the ancestral kangaroos and wombats of the secondary strata. Slowly
    the horses grow more horse-like, the shadowy camel begins to camelise
    himself, the buffaloes acquire the rudiments of horns, the deer branch
    out by tentative steps into still more complicated and more complicated
    antlers. Side by side with this wonderful outgrowth of the mammalian
    type, in the first plasticity of its vigorous youth, the older
    marsupials die away one by one in the geological record before the faces
    of their more successful competitors; the new carnivores devour them
    wholesale, the new ruminants eat up their pastures, the new rodents
    outwit them in the modernised forests. At last the pouched creatures all
    disappear utterly from all the world, save only Australia, with the
    solitary exception of a single advanced marsupial family, the familiar
    opossum of plantation melodies. And the history of the opossum himself
    is so very singular that it almost deserves to receive the polite
    attention of a separate paragraph for its own proper elucidation.

    For the opossums form the only members of the marsupial class now living
    outside Australia; and yet, what is at least equally remarkable, none of
    the opossums are found _per contra_ in Australia itself. They are, in
    fact, the highest and best product of the old dying marsupial stock,
    specially evolved in the great continents through the fierce competition
    of the higher mammals then being developed on every side of them.
    Therefore, being later in point of time than the separation, they could
    no more get over to Australia than the elephants and tigers and
    rhinoceroses could. They are the last bid for life of the marsupial race
    in its hopeless struggle against its more developed mammalian cousins.
    In Europe and Asia the opossums lived on lustily, in spite of
    competition, during the whole of the Eocene period, side by side with
    hog-like creatures not yet perfectly piggish, with nondescript animals,
    half horse half tapir, and with hornless forms of deer and antelopes,
    unprovided, so far, with the first rudiment of budding antlers. But in
    the succeeding age they seem to disappear from the eastern continent,
    though in the western, thanks to their hand-like feet, opposable thumb,
    and tree-haunting life, they still drag out a precarious existence in
    many forms from Virginia to Chili, and from Brazil to California. It is
    worth while to notice, too, that whereas the kangaroos and other
    Australian marsupials are proverbially the very stupidest of mammals,
    the opossums, on the contrary, are well known to those accurate
    observers of animal psychology, the plantation negroes, to be the very
    cleverest, cunningest, and slyest of American quadrupeds. In the fierce
    struggle for life of the crowded American lowlands, the opossum was
    absolutely forced to acquire a certain amount of Yankee smartness, or
    else to be improved off the face of the earth by the keen competition of
    the pouchless mammals.

    Up to the day, then, when Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, landing for
    the first time on the coast of New South Wales, saw an animal with short
    front limbs, huge hind legs, a monstrous tail, and a curious habit of
    hopping along the ground (called by the natives a kangaroo), the
    opossums of America were the only pouched mammals known to the European
    world in any part of the explored continents. Australia, severed from
    all the rest of the earth--_penitus toto orbe divisa_--ever since the
    end of the secondary period, remained as yet, so to speak, in the
    secondary age so far as its larger life-elements were concerned, and
    presented to the first comers a certain vague and indefinite picture of
    what 'the world before the flood' must have looked like. Only it was a
    very remote flood; an antediluvian age separated from our own not by
    thousands, but by millions, of seasons.

    To this rough approximate statement, however, sundry needful
    qualifications must be made at the very outset. No statement is ever
    quite correct until you have contradicted in minute detail about
    two-thirds of it.

    In the first place there are a good many modern elements in the
    indigenous population of Australia; but then they are elements of the
    stray and casual sort one always finds even in remote oceanic islands.
    They are waifs wafted by accident from other places. For example, the
    flora is by no means exclusively an ancient flora, for a considerable
    number of seeds and fruits and spores of ferns always get blown by the
    wind, or washed by the sea, or carried on the feet or feathers of birds,
    from one part of the world to another. In all these various ways, no
    doubt, modern plants from the Asiatic region have invaded Australia at
    different times, and altered to some extent the character and aspect of
    its original native vegetation. Nevertheless, even in the matter of its
    plants and trees, Australia must still be considered a very
    old-fashioned and stick-in-the-mud continent. The strange
    puzzle-monkeys, the quaint-jointed casuarinas (like horsetails grown
    into big willows), and the park-like forests of blue gum-trees, with
    their smooth stems robbed of their outer bark, impart a marvellously
    antiquated and unfamiliar tone to the general appearance of Australian
    woodland. All these types belong by birth to classes long since extinct
    in the larger continents. The scrub shows no turfy greensward; grasses,
    which elsewhere carpet the ground, were almost unknown till introduced
    from Europe; in the wild lands, bushes, and undershrubs of ancient
    aspect cover the soil, remarkable for their stiff, dry, wiry foliage,
    their vertically instead of horizontally flattened leaves, and their
    general dead blue-green or glaucous colour. Altogether, the vegetation
    itself, though it contains a few more modern forms than the animal
    world, is still essentially antique in type, a strange survival from the
    forgotten flora of the chalk age, the oolite, and even the lias.

    Again, to winged animals, such as birds and bats and flying insects, the
    ocean forms far less of a barrier than it does to quadrupeds, to
    reptiles, and to fresh-water fishes. Hence Australia has, to some
    extent, been invaded by later types of birds and other flying creatures,
    who live on there side by side with the ancient animals of the secondary
    pattern. Warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, shrikes, and crows must all be
    comparatively recent immigrants from the Asiatic mainland. Even in this
    respect, however, the Australian life-region still bears an antiquated
    and undeveloped aspect. Nowhere else in the world do we find those very
    oldest types of birds represented by the cassowaries, the emus, and the
    mooruk of New Britain. The extreme term in this exceedingly ancient set
    of creature is given us by the wingless bird, the apteryx or kiwi of New
    Zealand, whose feathers nearly resemble hair, and whose grotesque
    appearance makes it as much a wonder in its own class as the
    puzzle-monkey and the casuarina are among forest trees. No feathered
    creatures so closely approach the lizard-tailed birds of the oolite or
    the toothed birds of the cretaceous period as do these Australian and
    New Zealand emus and apteryxes. Again, while many characteristic
    Oriental families are quite absent, like the vultures, woodpeckers,
    pheasants and bulbuls, the Australian region has many other fairly
    ancient birds, found nowhere else on the surface of our modern planet.
    Such are the so-called brush turkeys and mound builders, the only
    feathered things that never sit upon their own eggs, but allow them to
    be hatched, after the fashion of reptiles, by the heat of the sand or of
    fermenting vegetable matter. The piping crows, the honey-suckers, the
    lyre-birds, and the more-porks are all peculiar to the Australian
    region. So are the wonderful and æsthetic bower-birds. Brush-tongued
    lories, black cockatoos, and gorgeously coloured pigeons, though
    somewhat less antique, perhaps, in type, give a special character to the
    bird-life of the country. And in New Guinea, an isolated bit of the same
    old continent, the birds of paradise, found nowhere else in the whole
    world, seem to recall some forgotten Eden of the remote past, some
    golden age of Saturnian splendour. Poetry apart, into which I have
    dropped for a moment like Mr. Silas Wegg, the birds of paradise are, in
    fact, gorgeously dressed crows, specially adapted to forest life in a
    rich fruit-bearing tropical country, where food is abundant and enemies

    Last of all, a certain small number of modern mammals have passed over
    to Australia at various times by pure chance. They fall into two
    classes--the rats and mice, who doubtless got transported across on
    floating logs or balks of timber; and the human importations, including
    the dog, who came, perhaps on their owners' canoes, perhaps on the wreck
    and _débris_ of inundations. Yet even in these cases again, Australia
    still maintains its proud pre-eminence as the most antiquated and
    unprogressive of continents. For the Australian black-fellow must have
    got there a very long time ago indeed; he belongs to an extremely
    ancient human type, and strikingly recalls in his jaws and skull the
    Neanderthal savage and other early prehistoric races; while the
    woolly-headed Tasmanian, a member of a totally distinct human family,
    and perhaps the very lowest sample of humanity that has survived to
    modern times, must have crossed over to Tasmania even earlier still, his
    brethren on the mainland having no doubt been exterminated later on when
    the stone-age Australian black-fellows first got cast ashore upon the
    continent inhabited by the yet more barbaric and helpless negrito race.
    As for the dingo, or Australian wild dog, only half domesticated by the
    savage natives, he represents a low ancestral dog type, half wolf and
    half jackal, incapable of the higher canine traits, and with a
    suspicious, ferocious, glaring eye that betrays at once his
    uncivilisable tendencies.

    Omitting these later importations, however--the modern plants, birds,
    and human beings--it may be fairly said that Australia is still in its
    secondary stage, while the rest of the world has reached the tertiary
    and quaternary periods. Here again, however, a deduction must be made,
    in order to attain the necessary accuracy. Even in Australia the world
    never stands still. Though the Australian animals are still at bottom
    the European and Asiatic animals of the secondary age, they are those
    animals with a difference. They have undergone an evolution of their
    own. It has not been the evolution of the great continents; but it has
    been evolution all the same; slower, more local, narrower, more
    restricted, yet evolution in the truest sense. One might compare the
    difference to the difference between the civilisation of Europe and the
    civilisation of Mexico or Peru. The Mexicans, when Cortez blotted out
    their indigenous culture, were still, to be sure, in their stone age;
    but it was a very different stone age from that of the cave-dwellers or
    mound builders in Britain. Even so, though Australia is still
    zoologically in the secondary period, it is a secondary period a good
    deal altered and adapted in detail to meet the wants of special

    The oldest types of animals in Australia are the ornithorhynchus and the
    echidna, the 'beast with a bill,' and the 'porcupine ant-eater' of
    popular natural history. These curious creatures, genuine living
    fossils, occupy in some respects an intermediate place between the
    mammals on the one hand and the birds and lizards on the other. The
    echidna has no teeth, and a very bird-like skull and body; the
    ornithorhynchus has a bill like a duck's, webbed feet, and a great many
    quaint anatomical peculiarities which closely ally it to the birds and
    reptiles. Both, in fact, are early arrested stages in the development of
    mammals from the old common vertebrate ancestor; and they could only
    have struggled on to our own day in a continent free from the severe
    competition of the higher types which have since been evolved in Europe
    and Asia. Even in Australia itself the ornithorhynchus and echidna have
    had to put up perforce with the lower places in the hierarchy of nature.
    The first is a burrowing and aquatic creature, specialised in a thousand
    minute ways for his amphibious life and queer subterranean habits; the
    second is a spiny hedgehog-like nocturnal prowler, who buries himself in
    the earth during the day, and lives by night on insects which he licks
    up greedily with his long ribbon-like tongue. Apart from the
    specialisations brought about by their necessary adaptation to a
    particular niche in the economy of life, these two quaint and very
    ancient animals probably preserve for us in their general structure the
    features of an extremely early descendant of the common ancestor from
    whom mammals, birds, and reptiles alike are originally derived.

    The ordinary Australian pouched mammals belong to far less ancient types
    than ornithorhynchus and echidna, but they too are very old in
    structure, though they have undergone an extraordinary separate
    evolution to fit them for the most diverse positions in life. Almost
    every main form of higher mammal (except the biggest ones) has, as it
    were, its analogue or representative among the marsupial fauna of the
    Australasian region fitted to fill the same niche in nature. For
    instance, in the blue gum forests of New South Wales a small animal
    inhabits the trees, in form and aspect exactly like a flying squirrel.
    Nobody who was not a structural and anatomical naturalist would ever for
    a moment dream of doubting its close affinity to the flying squirrels of
    the American woodlands. It has just the same general outline, just the
    same bushy tail, just the same rough arrangement of colours, and just
    the same expanded parachute-like membrane stretching between the fore
    and hind limbs. Why should this be so? Clearly because both animals have
    independently adapted themselves to the same mode of life under the same
    general circumstances. Natural selection, acting upon unlike original
    types, but in like conditions, has produced in the end very similar
    results in both cases. Still, when we come to examine the more intimate
    underlying structure of the two animals, a profound fundamental
    difference at once exhibits itself. The one is distinctly a true
    squirrel, a rodent of the rodents, externally adapted to an arboreal
    existence; the other is equally a true phalanger, a marsupial of the
    marsupials, which has independently undergone on his own account very
    much the same adaptation, for very much the same reasons. Just so a
    dolphin looks externally very like a fish, in head and tail and form and
    movement; its flippers closely resemble fins; and nothing about it
    seems to differ very markedly from the outer aspect of a shark or a
    codfish. But in reality it has no gills and no swim-bladder; it lays no
    eggs; it does not own one truly fish-like organ. It breathes air, it
    possesses lungs, it has warm blood, it suckles its young; in heart and
    brain and nerves and organisation it is a thorough-going mammal, with an
    acquired resemblance to the fishy form, due entirely to mere similarity
    in place of residence.

    Running hastily through the chief marsupial developments, one may say
    that the wombats are pouched animals who take the place of rabbits or
    marmots in Europe, and resemble them both in burrowing habits and more
    or less in shape, which closely approaches the familiar and ungraceful
    guinea-pig outline. The vulpine phalanger does duty for a fox; the fat
    and sleepy little dormouse phalanger takes the place of a European
    dormouse. Both are so ridiculously like the analogous animals of the
    larger continents that the colonists always call them, in perfect good
    faith, by the familiar names of the old-country creatures. The koala
    poses as a small bear; the cuscus answers to the racoons of America. The
    pouched badgers explain themselves at once by their very name, like the
    Plyants, the Pinchwifes, the Brainsicks, and the Carelesses of the
    Restoration comedy. The 'native rabbit' of Swan River is a rabbit-like
    bandicoot; the pouched ant-eater similarly takes the place of the true
    ant-eaters of other continents. By way of carnivores, the Tasmanian
    devil is a fierce and savage marsupial analogue of the American
    wolverine; a smaller species of the same type usurps the name and place
    of the marten; and the dog-headed Thylacinus is in form and figure
    precisely like a wolf or a jackal. The pouched weasels are very
    weasel-like; the kangaroo rats and kangaroo mice run the true rats and
    mice a close race in every particular. And it is worth notice, in this
    connection, that the one marsupial family which could compete with
    higher American life, the opossums, are really, so to speak, the monkey
    development of the marsupial race. They have opposable thumbs, which
    make their feet almost into hands; they have prehensile tails, by which
    they hang from branches in true monkey fashion; they lead an arboreal
    omnivorous existence; they feed off fruits, birds' eggs, insects, and
    roots; and altogether they are just active, cunning, intelligent,
    tree-haunting marsupial spider-monkeys.

    Australia has also one still more ancient denizen than any of these, a
    living fossil of the very oldest sort, a creature of wholly immemorial
    and primitive antiquity. The story of its discovery teems with the
    strangest romance of natural history. To those who could appreciate the
    facts of the case it was just as curious and just as interesting as
    though we were now to discover somewhere in an unknown island or an
    African oasis some surviving mammoth, some belated megatherium, or some
    gigantic and misshapen liassic saurian. Imagine the extinct animals of
    the Crystal Palace grounds suddenly appearing to our dazzled eyes in a
    tropical ramble, and you can faintly conceive the delight and
    astonishment of naturalists at large when the barramunda first 'swam
    into their ken' in the rivers of Queensland. To be sure, in size and
    shape this 'extinct fish,' still living and grunting quietly in our
    midst, is comparatively insignificant beside the 'dragons of the prime'
    immortalised in a famous stanza by Tennyson: but, to the true
    enthusiast, size is nothing; and the barramunda is just as much a marvel
    and a monster as the Atlantosaurus himself would have been if he had
    suddenly walked upon the stage of time, dragging fifty feet of
    lizard-like tail in a train behind him. And this is the plain story of
    that marvellous discovery of a 'missing link' in our own pedigree.

    In the oldest secondary rocks of Britain and elsewhere there occur in
    abundance the teeth of a genus of ganoid fishes known as the Ceratodi.
    (I apologise for ganoid, though it is not a swear-word). These teeth
    reappear from time to time in several subsequent formations, but at last
    slowly die out altogether; and of course all naturalists naturally
    concluded that the creature to which they belonged had died out also,
    and was long since numbered with the dodo and the mastodon. The idea
    that a Ceratodus could still be living, far less that it formed an
    important link in the development of all the higher animals, could never
    for a moment have occurred to anybody. As well expect to find a
    palæolithic man quietly chipping flints on a Pacific atoll, or to
    discover the ancestor of all horses on the isolated and crag-encircled
    summit of Roraima, as to unearth a real live Ceratodus from a modern
    estuary. In 1870, however, Mr. Krefft took away the breath of scientific
    Europe by informing it that he had found the extinct ganoid swimming
    about as large as life, and six feet long, without the faintest
    consciousness of its own scientific importance, in a river in Queensland
    at the present day. The unsophisticated aborigines knew it as
    barramunda; the almost equally ignorant white settlers called it with
    irreverent and unfilial contempt the flat-head. On further examination,
    however, the despised barramunda proved to be a connecting link of
    primary rank between the oldest surviving group of fishes and the lowest
    air-breathing animals like the frogs and salamanders. Though a true
    fish, it leaves its native streams at night, and sets out on a foraging
    expedition after vegetable food in the neighbouring woodlands. There it
    browses on myrtle leaves and grasses, and otherwise behaves itself in a
    manner wholly unbecoming its piscine antecedents and aquatic education.
    To fit it for this strange amphibious life, the barramunda has both
    lungs and gills; it can breathe either air or water at will, or, if it
    chooses, the two together. Though covered with scales, and most
    fish-like in outline, it presents points of anatomical resemblance both
    to salamanders and lizards; and, as a connecting bond between the North
    American mud-fish on the one hand and the wonderful lepidosiren on the
    other, it forms a true member of the long series by which the higher
    animals generally trace their descent from a remote race of marine
    ancestors. It is very interesting, therefore, to find that this living
    fossil link between fish and reptiles should have survived only in the
    fossil continent, Australia. Everywhere else it has long since been
    beaten out of the field by its own more developed amphibian descendants;
    in Australia alone it still drags on a lonely existence as the last
    relic of an otherwise long-forgotten and extinct family.
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