The Platypus is a shy little animal that has a beak like a duck, a tail like a beaver, webbed feet like an otter – and it lays eggs! Interestingly, it is also venomous. Also known as the Duck-billed Platypus, its strange outward appearance is only the beginning. Its internal physiology too is unusual, having both mammalian and birdlike characteristics. The platypus is a carnivorous semi-aquatic monotreme mammal that lives in rivers and creeks in the eastern regions of Australia. It is a solitary animal that is active during the evening and night. During the day it rests in its burrow. The platypus lives for about 10 years.
The platypus is about 35-50mm from head to tall and weighs between 0.5 to 2 kilograms. It is much smaller than people think, being only about the size of a small cat. 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's upper body is covered in thick brown fur. The underside has cream or greyish coloured fur. It has a grey undercoat. The platypus's waterproof 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 underwater.
A beak like a duck?
A tail like a beaver?
Feet like an otter?
A mammal laying eggs?
They said the animal is a hoax,
The existence of the platypus 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.
The platypus's beak is called a bill. It is flat, soft, rubbery and very sensitive. (It looks like it's made of plastic). Its nostrils are located on the top of its bill and close when the animal submerges. 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. Once detected, the platypus 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 duck-billed platypus's eyes and ears are located in grooves just behind its bill. Each groove acts like a pair of large eyelids. These lids open when the animal is above water revealing its eyes and ears and closes when it is underwater protecting them. It also has another inner third eyelid called a nictitating membrane, which acts like a squeegee and lubricates and removes dust and debris from the eye. (Cats, birds and even crocodiles have this membrane.)
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 and are equipped with venomous spurs. The animal paddles with its front limbs and uses its rear limbs for 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.
The platypus has only one opening at the end of its body called a cloaca. This all-in-one opening is the exit of a common chamber into which the intestinal, genital, and urinary tracts discharge. This is a common characteristic amongst birds and reptiles but very rarely found in mammals. In other mammals there are two openings, namely the rectum/anus and reproductive tracts such as the vagina and penis.
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.
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.
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. Instead they try to avoid each other, even changing their foraging schedule to do so.
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 occasionally share burrows.
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.
Platypuses feeds mainly in the evening and night. On rare occasions they may also venture out during daylight hours. They are bottom feeders, 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.
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.
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 starts to consume it. As the adult platypus does not have teeth, it grinds its food between two bony plates on its upper and lower jaws for about 10 to 20 seconds 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.
Platypuses are solitary animals and don't socialise. The only time they come together is to mate. Overall very little is known about the reproduction of these animals.
The mating season start in late winter and early spring. The exact timing may be a factor of the climate, with those in the north commencing reproductive activities early than those in the colder south (Remember Australia, being in the southern hemisphere, has a reverse climate - the north is warming than the south). During this time the male actively competes for territory and the females in it. To do so it produces venom in the spurs on its rear legs and uses them to inflict injury on competing males. When battling another male, one male will wrap his legs around an opponent, and stab him with his venomous spurs. These fights are rarely fatal. The loser will be temporarily paralysed by the venom and will usually retreat. The winner gets whatever females reside in his new fought territory. Females too become more aggressive during this period and nip each other on the tail with their toothless bills to chase them away from the area.
Females do not appear to be choosy about the male they couple up with. They do so with any male in their territory assuming that he is probably the biggest and strongest in the area. The courting ritual may last for several weeks with the female playing coy, and refusing his advances until she is receptive. She is receptive for 4-6 days. She will indicate her readiness to mate by nipping the male on his tail and he will nip hers in return and will swim in a circle and indulge in other aquatic courting rituals for a few days more before mating.
Copulation takes place when the male partially mounts the female, curls his tail under her rear, positions his cloaca against hers, inserts his penis (which was stored inside his cloaca) and ejaculates into her. A process that takes around 10 minutes. Once copulation is complete the male will depart to find other females and the female will start nest preparations.
After mating the female prepares a burrow deep into a riverbank with a nesting chamber as far as 4 meters from the entrance which she lines it with vegetation.
The eggs develop internally first (In utero) and then approximately 2-3 weeks after mating the female lays 1-3 leathery white eggs, the size of small marbles (11 mm). She positions these eggs in a slight depression on her belly and curls up tail to cradle them. Kept warm by her, the eggs incubate in about 10 days. The young platypus hatchling, about 9 mm in length, exit its egg by tearing the shell open with a small egg tooth located on the tip of its snout and clawing its way out with its front feet. It also has very tiny rudimentary teeth that fall out with a few weeks.
Once the hatchling are born the mother’s body secretes milk from tow special paths on its skin (as the platypus don’t not have nipples like other mammals). Because its milk is deposited on the surface of the skin, and doesn't offer the relative sterility of a nipple; its milk contains special antimicrobial chemicals which protect young from infection.
Baby platypuses (sometimes called puggles) remain in the burrow for about 3-4 months feeding on milk and then solids brought to them by their mother. When they finally emerge they are about 80% of the length of an adult platypus and are fully furred. At this time they need to fend for themselves, learning to swim and feed on their own. Platypuses reach sexual maturity at two years of age. 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.
The platypus is one of only five mammals in the world that is venomous. However, it rarely attacks any animals and does so only under extreme provocation.
Wondered why we use the term 'venomous' rather than 'poisonous'? Here is the reason.
A venomous animal injects or otherwise delivers its toxin into another animal. While a poisonous animal's entire body or parts of it may be contain a toxic substance that is harmful if touched or eaten. Because the platypus injects its toxins, it is venomous.
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 composed largely of defensin-like peptides (OvDLPs). Its composition is unique to the Platypus and is related to, but distinct from, snake venom. While the venom is not fatal to humans, it results in swelling around the affected area and excruciating pain that can temporarily incapacitate its victim. The pain can also linger for days if not months and cannot be suppressed with drugs such as morphine. Dogs are known to have died as a consequence of platypus attacks. The platypus is one of five venomous mammals and the only one which uses venomous spurs.
Since platypuses don't have many natural predators and doesn't use their spurs 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.
Platypuses fall prey to dingoes, feral cats, foxes, large birds of prey and crocodiles. Domestic dogs too occasional attack platypuses. The young in nesting burrows are threatened by water-rats, and goannas.
The 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-European settlement numbers. 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.
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 first European 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 platypus is the only one in the genus Ornithorhynchus.
The general public liked the name Platypus. So that's the name that stuck. It is also known as the duck-billed platypus. Platypus is pronounced pla-tea-pus.
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".
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