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Probably known as Australia’s weirdest animal, the platypus appears to be a mix of duck, otter, beaver and reptile. In fact, when the platypus was first discovered by Europeans back in the late 1700’s it looked so unusual that many of the scientists thought it was a fake.
Yes, its true, even one of our cutest can pack a punch. The males have venomous spurs about 12 millimetres long on each ankle. It’s thought the spurs are mainly used for fighting other males during breeding season. The venom is not lethal to humans, but it is reported to be very painful!
Mammals are generally defined as a group of animals in which young are nourished by milk from the mother. Platypuses produce milk for their young but unlike other mammals they don’t have teats but instead ‘sweat’ out the milk through pores on the belly for the young to suckle on. The Platypus also lays eggs, a characteristic usually only found in birds or reptiles. This puts them in their own subcategory of mammals called the monotremes.
Check out the short beaked echidna in Sandra Temple’s artwork.
And finally as mentioned above, platypus have electroreceptors, about 40,000 in fact, on their bill. Echidnas also have electro receptors in their snouts though substantially less at between 400-2000.
Did you know that Platypus, or more accurately their ancestors, have been about for millions of years. Monotremes are known to have been about since Australia was still part of the super continent Gondwana (252 to 66 million years ago) with the oldest fossil found in Australia dated as 110 million years old. The fossil evidence points towards this group of animals coming from the Australian/Antarctic part of Gondwana but there’s also evidence of platypus ancestors in South America with a fossil tooth found in Argentina dating between 61-63 million years old.
To put this into perspective this means they are older than humans and our ancestors; the Ape family tree is about 22-20 million years old and the human race only split off from their last common ancestor (chimpanzees) about 8-4 million years ago.
Due to their uniqueness the Platypus has been an important animal for studying evolution and we are still uncovering new secrets from them today, in 2020 it was discovered that Platypus are slightly biofluorescent which means they glow under UV light. Its unknown what the benefit of glowing is to the platypus, but as they swim with their eyes shut its unlikely to aid their sight, instead it is thought it may act as a camouflage to help hide them from predators.
Talking of predators, what is the platypus naturally at threat from? It’s rarely witnessed but it’s thought crocodiles, goannas, carpet pythons, eagles and some large fish are their natural predators and its thought introduced species such as foxes, dog and dingoes probably kill platypuses too.
Humans have also contributed to platypus deaths in the past as they were legally allowed to be hunted for their fur until 1912. Thankfully, they are now protected by law in all the states they live in, namely in eastern and southern parts of mainland Australia as well as Tasmania, King Island, and an introduced population on Kangaroo Island in South Australia.
Platypuses, being a water-based species, are dependent on healthy waterways and can be negatively affected by overly polluted, degraded or modified waterways. Rivers or creeks with too much sediment for instance can smother the riverbed and make it hard for the platypus to find food whereas waterways polluted with litter can entangle platypuses and affect their ability to swim and look for food. They are also susceptible to drought and, in some areas, disease.
In 2014, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) assessed Platypus as ‘near threatened’ estimating there to be between 30,000-300,000 species remaining but noted population sizes are not well known. The work of organisations such as Wildlife Queensland are trying to help better understand platypus populations by encouraging the public to report sightings through ‘PlatypusWatch’ and they have also started an environmental DNA project to detect their presence in waterways.
We think protecting Australia’s iconic species is important which is why a percentage of all profits are donated to wildlife charities. We currently donate to the Friends of the Koala Foundation; an organisation run entirely by volunteers who commit themselves to preserving the koala and its habitat, as well as educating the community about koala conservation.
I think the weirdest thing about a Platypus is the poisonous spur on it’s leg.