Meet the Platypus
The platypus is such an unusual creature that European naturalists thought it was a hoax when the first dried skin was sent to England from the newly explored continent of Australia by Governor John Hunter in 1799. Surely a clever taxidermist had sewn the beak of a duck to the body of a small beaver!
|photo courtesy of
Dr. Lloyd Glenn Ingles, California Academy of Sciences.
But when preserved specimens were available for further examination, biologists were even more astounded to find a reproductive tract that was very similar to that of certain snakes and lizards that give birth to live young.
There was speculation that the platypus may be a furry lizard, until it was discovered that the female has mammary glands and suckles her young. But she also lays eggs! The platypus is now known to be a mammal, and belongs to the order Monotrememata, along with the long-beaked echidna and the short-beaked echidna.
The Monotremes are named for the one orifice, called the cloaca, that they use for urination, defecation and reproduction. “Monotreme” means “one hole.” They have this anatomical feature in common with birds and lizards.
The platypus does not have a true beak like a bird, because the bill is actually quite soft and spongy and is covered with a highly sensitive skin. The nostrils are found at the top and near the front, so that the platypus can breath while gliding almost completely submerged in water. This secretive little creature, which is about half the size of a common cat, lives much of it’s life in water, searching for insect larvae on the bottom of streams.
The sensory receptors in it’s beak can sense the small electrical charges emitted by moving larvae, as well as being highly sensitive to touch. In fact, the platypus relies solely on these senses while underwater, because it does all it’s hunting with it’s eyes closed!
The platypus has teeth when it is very young, but sheds them as an adult, and grinds it’s food to a very fine mush with it’s rough tongue against bony plates on the upper side of it’s mouth. The eyes and ears are located in a groove at the side if their heads, and this groove closes tight over their eyes and ears whenever they go underwater.
The males have a spur on the back ankle that is hollow, and connected to venom glands which can be used in defense against predators. These glands are enlarged during mating season, and may be used to defend the male’s territory.
Little is actually known about how the platypus lives in the wild, because they are so secretive. Their senses of hearing and sight are very acute, so they are aware of the slightest movement of people on the banks of their streams. It is believed that the female lays her egg (or two)about a month after mating in the spring, and that the egg hatches about ten days later.
Unlike the echidna, which carries it’s egg and puggle (baby) in a pouch, the platypus digs a burrow in the side of the stream or river, which may be three to ten feet deep. It is believed that the platypus may curl up around her egg to keep it warm, but that she does not stay in the nest with the baby once it’s hatched. Platypus mothers have been known to leave their nesting babies for two or three days at a time, but the babies grow quickly even with their infrequent feeding. The mother continues nursing her offspring for six to seven months. Because these are solitary animals, the young platypus will then need to find a feeding ground of it’s own.
The front feet of the platypus are highly webbed, and they are used as paddles to propel the platypus through water. The hind feet have less webbing, and are used mostly for steering. The tail, which looks a little like a beaver tail except that it is covered with fur, is used mostly to store fat to use for energy during times when food is difficult to find.
These animals are nocturnal, which means they spend the days resting inside their burrows, which they dig into the banks along the rivers. At dusk they come out of their burrows to feed in the stream, traveling a mile or more each day in search of food. At dusk they return to their burrow.
It is impossible to get an accurate count of such a secretive creature, but the platypus has been protected in Australia since the late 1800’s.