Monday, December 30, 2013

IS IT A DUCK? IS IT A BEAVER? What the heck?

            There are a few animals that I would call Australian Icons. There’s the Koala, the Kangaroo, the Kookaburra, and then there’s the Platypus. This is going to be a fun New Year’s post because we are going to talk about an animal that is NOT endangered. Today we are going to discuss the very unusual Platypus. I am highlighting the word unusual because this particular critter shares characteristics that few animals have. We’ll get to the facts in a bit, but first let’s take a look at the Platypus.

            A handsome looking guy, isn’t he? Yes, he’s a bit odd, but then again there are a lot of odd things in Australia (I’m smiling here ‘cause I love everything OZ). They are not like ducks, even though they have great webbed feet and love swimming. They are not like beavers, even though they love to live near rivers and streams and have a tail that looks like a beaver's. As a matter of fact, there is nothing that is quite like this animal anywhere on the planet. I saw a Platypus in person while in Australia, and I count myself lucky to have met him.  So now I’ll share what I’ve learned.

First, you have to know that Platypuses are not amphibians (amphibians are land animals that breed in water). They are mammals (mammals are warm-blooded animals which nourish their young with milk).

            So let’s explore some facts about this mammal.  The Platypus can be found along the eastern coast of Australia down into Tasmania. A population has also been introduced to Kangaroo Island (that’s the little yellow area on the map). The Platypus population is doing well. That has not always been the case.

     The Platypus was once hunted for its skin. However, in 1912, a law was passed which ended this practice, and the populations were allowed to recover. 

     The Platypus has been around for a while. They are believed to be the earliest relatives of modern mammals and scientists also believe that they evolved more than 112 million years ago, before the extinction of the dinosaurs. 

Platypus playing with Raptors
By, Zombiraptor – Deviant Art 

     As I told you, the Platypus is a mammal, but it also a monotreme. There are only two monotremes on the planet, and they both live in Australia. One is, of course, the Platypus, and the other is the Echidna (another one of my favorites, and the subject of a previous blog post). So what’s a monotreme? A monotreme, by definition, is a very primitive mammal that lays eggs instead of having live births.  To lay her eggs, a mother Platypus will dig a deep tunnel called a nursery burrow. At birth, Platypus babies are about the size of a lima bean. 

Hmmm… that’s pretty small!

Mother Platypuses do not have nipples like other mammals. The mother Platypus secretes milk (this means the milk oozes out), through a certain patch on their skin, by their stomach, where the babies eagerly lick it up. After about three to four months, the new Platypuses leave the den and enter the water where they start to feed. 

The Platypus is a carnivore. I hope you recall from previous posts, that carnivores are meat-eating animals. The Platypus enjoys a meal of worms, insect larvae and crayfish.  Yummy! Their mouth has no teeth. Instead, a pad of rough skin near their throat grinds up food before swallowing. By the way, the Platypus does not eat its meal underwater. They will store the food in their mouth until they come to the surface. Eating this kind of food will help the Platypus grow to about 18 inches in length and weigh about 3 pounds.

The Platypus shuts its eyes and nose tightly while hunting for food underwater. Their webbed feet make them great swimmers, and their flat tail and back legs help them to steer and stop. A platypus foraging for food can remain submerged for up to two minutes. Their fur is very thick, which helps keep them warm even after emerging from the water.

Photo credit:  World Wildlife Fund

All this is pretty remarkable stuff, but there are two more really interesting facts about the Platypus that I want to share with you. First, their bill is an amazing device. It is not like a duck’s bill, which is hard. Instead the bill of the Platypus is soft and it’s covered with thousands of receptors (sensitive nerve endings). These sensitive nerves on the Platypus’ bill help it locate a meal underwater! They can detect the movement of critters by sensing electrical impulses given off when those critters move. This is called electrolocation.  The Dolphin is another animal that uses electrolocation, and bees use electrolocation to get around.

Electrolocation sounds pretty bizarre, right? But, wait, there’s more. The Platypus gets even more unusual. The Platypus is venomous! That’s right, it’s poisonous like a snake or a spider. All Platypuses are born with a ‘spur’ (short bony outgrowth). This spur is located on their hind ankle. The spur is connected to a venom sac in the upper leg. Although all Platypuses are born with this spur, the female loses hers at about three months. The male Platypus will use the spur to battle other males during the mating season. The poison can kill a small dog or cat, but not a human. However, I have read that the ‘sting’ is very painful – not good!

All in all, the Platypus is a very unusual animal, and I have found a video that I hope you will enjoy.

My thanks to Arkive for their information and pictures. I hope you enjoyed reading about the Platypus. I certainly have enjoyed writing this post for you.

If you are interested in learning more about the Platypus, I suggest the following pages:

I want to thank you for visiting and wish all my readers and followers a very Happy and Healthy New Year!

J.E. Rogers, Author
The Sword of Demelza, where endangered animal heroes roam the pages!