Created | Updated Mar 5, 2007
The trouble with the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is knowing where to start. It's such a strange creature that when first presented in Britain in 1798 the science community proclaimed it a hoax. They confidently branded it the work of a clever taxidermist who had stitched together a mish-mash of animal parts to create the spectacle. A Dr George Shaw allegedly took scissors to the specimen in 1799 in the search for stitches.
It is probably best to approach each aspect of the egg-laying mammal known as platypus individually, because then it is apparent why the scientific community were so sceptical - the immensity of its weirdness is obvious.
It is known worldwide as the duck-billed platypus. The word platypus comes from the Greek for large feet; and duck-billed, well, because its upper bill has the appearance of a duck's bill. The fact the platypus family only consists of one member, and that the prefix 'duck-billed' is totally unnecessary for identification, appears to have passed most people by unnoticed.
The Native Australians gave the platypus a variety of names including mallangong, boondaburra and tambreet.
The platypus is one of only three members of the order of monotremata, the other two being the long-beaked echidna and the short-beaked echidna. The name monotremata refers to the fact that, like reptiles, these creatures eliminate waste and reproduce from the same orifice, but despite this they are in fact mammals.
Aboriginal legend has it that the first platypus was the result of a union between a young female duck and a seductive water rat. The resultant offspring featured the mother's bill and feet and the father's legs and fur, which really is quite a good description.
The adult platypus is about the size of a small cat, is dark brown in colour, has bald feet, a flat tail and a blackish-blue bill. Their legs extend horizontally from their body which creates a shuffling gait when they walk, rather like a lizard.
Apart from the already-stated duck bill, the platypus has many other strange physical characteristics.
They are excellent swimmers and, to this end, have webbed feet and a flat paddle-like tail to assist with steering underwater. The tail also stores as much as 50% of their body fat. They are so well adapted to the water they can close their eyes, ears and nostrils when underwater to facilitate their hunt for food. As nocturnal hunters who seek out prey with their eyes and ears closed, a platypus's bill acts as an electro-receptor sensing their quarry via electric currents created by muscular activity.
They have very thick mammalian hair, which is dark brown on the outer layer and grey to yellow in the under layer. Platypus hair is in fact thicker than that of a polar bear and enables them to keep warm in the water and on land where temperatures can drop to -17°C.
Baby platypus1 lose their teeth as they mature and these are replaced by grinding pads in their bills with which they pulp their food.
The male platypus has hollow spurs on each of its hind legs. During the mating season poison can be transferred by the spur to any threat or love rival. This makes the platypus one of only five2 known venomous mammals alive today. While the venom can create an unpleasant reaction in humans, it is not strong enough to cause death. The poison they generate can however prove fatal for other platypus and has been known to kill a dog.
The reaction of science that this creature was a hoax seems quite logical when the physical characteristics are so unique.
Habitat and Diet
The platypus can only be found on the eastern coast of Australia and lives around fresh water lakes and rivers. They extend from Queensland in the north, to Tasmania in the south. Platypus prefer slow moving bodies of water, and when not in the river or deep pools they live in burrows. There are two types of burrow, the basic which is used for normal day-to-day living and the more elaborate 'rabbit warren'-type used for rearing young.
Platypus live alone, maintaining their own territory. Although some territories can overlap, and they do live in close proximity, the platypus don't socialise at all outside of the breeding period from August to October.
Platypus are mainly nocturnal, but can be seen around dawn or dusk. They sleep for around 17 hours per day and can slow their metabolism from upwards of 200 heart beats per minute to around one per minute, which enables short periods of ‘hibernation’, of perhaps four or five days when food becomes scarce.
The platypus hunts for food on the river or lake beds by pushing its bill through the mud to unearth shrimps, small fish, worms and insect larvae. They do not, however, eat underwater. A platypus will collect food in its cheek pouches and bring it to the surface for a standard sit-down banquet. A dive can last for about 40 seconds and they can make up to 80 dives per hour. Alternatively, they can remain underwater for up to 14 minutes while motionless.
Little is known about the act of platypus mating, other than the fact it takes place in the water and is normally instigated by the female. The platypus doesn't reach sexual maturity until it is two years old, when the male begins producing sperm and the female's ovary kicks in. Like birds the females have only one active ovary.
Following a successful mating, the male will leave and the female will make a nesting burrow or network of burrows. Her new home will have an elaborate system of tunnels and many are partially blocked by earth to discourage predators.
A platypus egg is around the size of a thumbnail, and the female will usually lay a clutch of between one and three eggs. She will then stay in the burrow to incubate them by wrapping herself around them because, unlike the other monotremata, she has no pouch.
The mummy platypus feeds her young with milk, but not expressed from a nipple as with other mammals. The platypus produces milk from a large gland, possibly up to one third of her body length, and then it seeps out onto her fur. The baby platypus then suck the milk, which contains more iron than cows' milk, from her fur.
The young platypus do not leave the burrow until they are four or five months old, where they will continue to nurse from their mum until they are fully weaned and able to forage for themselves.
Barring natural disasters and predators, a platypus in the wild could be expected to live for around 16 years.
Predators and Other Threats
Platypus do fall prey to a number of predators including birds of prey, snakes, big fish and crocodiles. Rats will also take young platypus. Platypus are not great at vocalising even between themselves, but they are known to produce a low growl when danger rears its head.
Platypus face considerable peril from floods and other natural disasters, but man has had the biggest impact on their numbers. While they used to be killed for their pelts, they are now protected by law in the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974. The greatest threat however, as usual, is man’s impact on their habitat through pollution and fishing nets. Currently, the fungal infection Mucor amphiborum poses an immediate threat to the platypus in Tasmania, causing ulceration and ultimately death by secondary infection.
Where to see a Platypus
Sir David Attenborough has said 'The platypus is a very crucial creature, there's nothing else remotely like it... it represents the link between reptiles and other mammals, so it's a pretty key species'. He then went on to present The Life Of Mammals and let the world see for the first time a platypus with her newborn in their natural environment.
To catch a glimpse of a platypus in real life, a trip to Australia's Warrawong Earth Sanctuary in the Adelaide Hills is recommended. Failing that, if you're lucky enough to live anywhere near a zoo, give it a try. They can be kept in captivity, but are very shy, so if your local zoo has a platypussary, check it out and be patient.
The duck-billed platypus is a creature that is neither one thing nor the other, and by all accounts is a little of everything. The faithful claim the platypus proves the very existence of God because nothing like this could ever have evolved. They would have a point if it is assumed that this was God’s last item of the day and he created it with the leftovers. Naturalists proclaim it as one of evolution's strangest creations and either way, it would be a shame to lose such a fine specimen of specialist life on earth.