Platypus (Duck-billed Platypus)
A beak like a duck?
A tail like a beaver?
Feet like an otter?
A mammal laying eggs?
They said this animal must be a hoax,
The existence of the platypus, like so many other animals of Australia wasn't known to the rest of the world until after the first European explorers arrived in 1770. When people back in Europe were shown a pelt of a platypus they were convinced that it was an elaborated hoax. They said it was an animal that somebody had stitched up from the body parts of lots of other animals.
How could a single animal possibly have avian, reptilian and mammalian characteristics? They wondered. But they were wrong. The platypus is real and the only one of its kind in the whole world.
The Platypus (pronounced pla-tee-pus) is a shy odd-ball little animal that has a beak like a duck, a tail like a beaver, webbed feet like an otter and lays eggs! It is a small carnivorous aquatic monotreme mammal that lives in river and creeks in the eastern regions of Australia. It is much smaller than people think, being only about the size of a small cat. It is a solitary animal that is active during the evening and the night. During the day it rests in its burrow. It lives for about 10 years. It is also referred to as a Duck-billed Platypus.
Platypus Size and Weight
The platypus is about 35-50mm from head to tall and weighs between 0.5 to 2 kilograms. The female is smaller and weighs less than the male. Platypuses in the southern parts of Australia are larger than those found in the north. Some on the southern island of Tasmania can weigh as much as 3 kilos.
The platypus is covered in thick, brown fur over most of its body. The underside of its body has cream or greyish coloured fur. It has a grey undercoat. The platypus's fur coat is double-layered which traps air for insulation. This keeps the animal's body warm and dry and gives it natural buoyancy when it is under water.
Bill and Mouth
The platypus's beak is called a bill. It is flat, soft, rubbery and very sensitive. (It looks like it's made of plastic). Electroreceptors on its bill are so sensitive that they can detect even the smallest movements made by underwater worms, insect larvae and crustaceans on which its feeds. The platypus then uses its bill to shovel up and unearth these creatures for it to eat. An adult platypus has no teeth; instead it chews by grinding its food between two bony grinding plates on its upper and lower jaws.
The platypus has four short dark brown limbs with broad clawed webbed feet. The front feet are fully webbed and are like large paddles when extended. The rear feet are partially webbed. The animal paddles with its front limbs and uses its rear limbs fro steering. It can retract the webbing on its feet allowing it to walk on land and for digging its burrow.
The platypus has a large flat tail covered in dense fur. It does not use its tail to propel itself through water. It is used as a stabiliser and to store fat. A fat-tailed platypus means a happy healthy platypus. The female platypus lives off the fat stored in her tail while she is incubating her eggs.
How to Resolve Zoological Names
When the conflict in names is discovered an old zoological convention is used in determining the new scientific name. To summarise the rule - the oldest names takes precedence.
So they couldn't use the genus name Platypus because it was already assigned to a beetle. The next oldest genus name was assigned by Blumenbach which was Ornithorhynchus. So this
replaced Platypus. But the sub-genus, Anatinus, assigned by Shaw was older than Paradoxus assigned by Blumenbach. So the sub-genus used became Anatinus.
There you have it; the reason for the scientific name of the platypus being Ornithorhynchus anatinus.
The history of the origin of the Platypus's name is an interesting one. The aborigine people, the first inhabitants of Australia, called them by a number of names such as dulaiwarrung, tambreet and mallangong.
The first white explorers and settlers called it a duckmole, watermole and duckbill. In 1797 Governor John Hunter of the fledgling Colony of New South Wales sent some sketches and a pelt to a platypus back to England.
When the first specimen of this odd creature arrived in Europe in 1798 the scientific community were dumbfounded and totally sceptical. They were convinced that it was an elaborate hoax – a fake, stitched together by an expert taxidermist to trick them.
In 1799 the noted, naturalist George Shaw was the first to formally examine and name the animal. He named it Platypus Anatinus which means flat-footed and bird-like. The German anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, working independently of Shaw, named the animal Ornithorhynchus paradoxus (puzzling bird-billed animal). It was soon discovered that a beetle had already been named 'platypus' so the scientific name was changed to Ornithorhynchus Anatinus (bird-like animal).
The general public liked the name Platypus. So that's the name that stuck. It is also known as the duck-billed platypus.
This animal is the only one in the genus Ornithorhynchus.
Oh Dear this gets Complicated
The name 'platypus' is modern Latin, used especially by the scientific community for naming things. It is derived from the Greek 'platupous'. This is constructed by the concatenation of two words platus 'flat' + pous 'foot'.
Platypuses, Platypodes, Platypi?
The editors at Merriam-Webster explain the plural form for names ending in "us", such as platypus and octopus.
Using a Greek Construct
If we were to use a Greek construct for the plural for words ending in –pus/poûs; the word would end in 'podes'. So using a Greek construct for the plural for platypus would be 'platypodes'. But this is strictly speaking not a Greek name; it is simply constructed from two Greek words. 'Platypodes' was sometimes used in the past for the plural but it is rarely used today. It is also acceptable for the use of "es" to signify the plural in third declension Greek. Then 'platypuses' becomes acceptable.
Using a Latin Construct
If we were to use a Latin construct the plural would be 'platypi'. This comes from the belief that it is a Latin second declension noun. But it is not a Latin word either. It is third declension Greek.
Using a Modern English Construct
If we use modern English then as with most nouns ending in –s, the plural for platypus would be platypuses. (bus–buses, walrus–walruses)
The most correct plural form is 'platypuses'. The next most correct form is 'platypodes', but this is rarely used today. As for 'platypi'? Well, English is an evolving language and common usage sometimes dictates a word's acceptance into the language. Besides its so much fun calling them 'platypi'.
Even though the platypus is an aquatic animal, it has four legs which it also uses for walking and burrowing. There are two interesting characteristics about the way it walks. Firstly, the platypus walks in a manner similar to a reptile, such as a crocodile or lizard by moving its legs from the side of its body rather than from under it. Secondly, because its front feet are fully webbed, the platypus walks on its knuckles in order to protect the webbing and to prevent them from getting entangled in obstacles as it walks. This is called Knuckle-walking. (Knuckle-walking is also used by gorillas and chimpanzees). Because a platypus is designed for efficiency in water it is not well adapted for walking on land. It has been estimated that it uses 30% more energy walking on land than a land animal of comparable size. They are rarely observed on dry land.
The platypus is an expert swimmer and diver. It swims and propels itself underwater by using its large webbed paddle-like front feet and steers with its tail and rear feet. It closes its eyes, nostrils and ears when swimming underwater and uses its super-sensitive bill to guide it through the water. A Platypus usually remains submerged for about 4 minutes but can remain submerged for as long as 14 minutes. It can swim and dive at the rate of 12 meters per minute. While foraging for food it travels at a speed of about half a meter per second. The platypus has a very low above water profile making it hard to spot.
Platypus Geographic Distribution
The platypus lives in heavily wooded areas along the eastern coast of Australia where there are freshwater creeks and streams with steep stable riverbanks. Their range extends all the way from Queensland to South Australia. The climatic range covers tropical, semi-tropical and temperate zones of eastern Australia.
Platypus Home Range
The platypus prefers waterways with riverbeds are gravelly or pebbled which is where its food sources are found. It establishes a home range and forages in that range. A platypus's home range may overlap with that of other platypuses but they do not have territorial disputes. They are solitary animals and don't socialise, only coming together to mate.
The Platypus prefers riverbanks that are at least one meter tall. It uses its claws and feet to dig its burrow into the sides of these riverbanks just above or beneath the waterline. The entrance to its burrow is usually hidden amongst the roots and branches of vegetation and has an underwater entry.
Females construct two types of burrows. Nesting burrows are specifically for her and her offspring and are built deep into the riverbank with a nesting chamber as far as 4 meters from the entrance. Camping burrows on the other hand are constructed by both males and females and usually have a short passageway which extends about 1 to 2 meters into the riverbank. The nesting chamber is dry and the platypus spends many hours sleeping there. A platypus may have multiple camping burrow dispersed through its home range.
The platypus searches out its food in the shallow creeks and rivers it inhabits. It uses super-sensitive electro-receptors in its duck-like bill to detect its food. These receptors pick up even the smallest electrical pluses that all animals make when they move.
Feeding time and Places
Platypuses feeds mainly at night. On rare occasions they may also venture out during daylight hours. It spends 10 to 12 hours each day foraging for food. The Platypus prefers to forage along the edges of the waterways it occupies such as the spaces near overhanging river banks, among submerged vegetation and decomposing plant matter. It also searches for food in pools and riffles of streams where water flows more turbulently over rocks and boulders
The platypus uses super-sensitive electro-receptors in its duck-like bill to detect its food. These receptors pick up even the smallest electrical pluses that all animals make when they move. It moves its head from side to side as it swims underwater picking up the tell-tale electrical signals given off by its prey quickly homing in on them unearthing them with its bill when required and pouncing on them.
Types of Food the Platypus Eats
The platypus's diet consists of invertebrate prey such as water beetles, water bugs, the larvae of caddis flies, mayflies, damselflies, dragonflies, dobsonflies, midges, craneflies and blackflies. It also eats snails, shrimp, mussels, seed shrimp, water mites, worms and small crayfish. Because the platypus has no teeth, it does not attempt to catch fish or large prey.
Food Collection and Storage
The platypus stores its catch temporarily in cheek-pouches located just behind its jaw as it continues to rummage along the waterway floor in search of more prey. In 30 to 60 seconds, when its oxygen supple starts to run out, its heads back up to the surface.
Once floating on the water surface, the platypus quickly retrieves the morsels it stored in its cheek-pouches and chews them, for about 10 to 20 seconds, by grinding them between two bony plates on its upper and lower jaws and swallows this mashed up food. It consumes between 15% to 30% of its body mass in food each day.
The platypus does not have a stomach; the sac usually found between the oesophagus and intestine that secretes powerful digestive acids and enzymes to break down food. Its oesophagus is connected directly to its intestine doing away with the stomach altogether. Scientists believe that the platypus lost its stomach because its diet does not require this complex organ to break down its food.
The male platypus has two sharp poisonous spurs near each rear ankle that are connected to a venom glad in each thigh. These spurs are usually held close to the ankle but can be rotated out to a 90 degrees creating highly efficient jabbing spike. When a platypus attacks, it grabs a part of its victim's body, typically a limb such as a leg, with its hind legs and buries its spurs into the victims flesh. It repeatedly jabs with these spars injecting venom into its victim.
Platypus Venom is Poisonous
While the venom is not fatal to humans, the pain caused by it is excruciating and can temporarily incapacitate its victim. Dogs are known to have died as a consequence of platypus attacks. The platypus is one of ten venomous mammals and the only one which uses venomous spurs.
Why the Platypus has Venom
Since platypuses don't have many natural predators and doesn't use them to capture food, and venom seems to be produced mostly during the breeding season, it is believed that this is part of the mating ritual between rival males. They rarely die from these duelling matches. The female platypus also hatches with spurs but these soon disappear as the animal grows.
Platypus Babies have Teeth but Adults Don't
A baby platypus, when hatched, has very tiny rudimentary teeth that fall out with a few weeks. Adults don't have any teeth. They grind their food between bony plates on their upper and lower jaws.
Aboriginal Dreamtime Folklore - How the Platypus was Born
In Aboriginal Dreamtime folklore a beautiful young female duck fell in love with a lonely but debonair water rat. Their baby was the platypus with a bill like its mother and the lovely brown fur like its father.
Should a baby Platypus be called a Puggle?
There is no word in the English language for a baby platypus. This is primarily due to the fact that a baby platypus doesn't not emerge from its barrow until it's about three to four months old by which time it looks and behaves just like a small adult. The word 'puggle' has been suggested because it is the same term used for a baby echidna which is a member of the same family as the platypus. Presently the official name for a baby platypus is just that "baby platypus".
Number of Platypuses in the Wild
The actual number of platypuses in the wild has never been determined. This is because it is extremely difficult to detect and track these animals. The general consensus is that the animal population has returned to its pre-settlement numbers.
Conservation Classification of the Platypus
The platypus is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as a species that is of Least Concern. It is currently protected by legislation in all Australian States. It is illegal to capture, kill or keep it as pet.
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