In 1797 the early Australian settlers first discovered the Platypus, in the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. A specimen was sent to England for study. This triggered 82 years of controversy, with claims that it was a fraud, it baffled scientists all over the world. In fact one scientist in England actually tried to prise the duck-like bill from the specimen. The marks of the removal attempt, can still be seen on the specimen today, held in the British Museum Of Natural History, London.
Originally it was called the Water Mole, until in 1802 it was declared a genre in it’s own right and given the scientific name of Ornithorhynchus. The Platypus had ‘arrived’.
This animal is so amazing, it defies all the rules of nature in that it’s a warm blooded mammal, but lays eggs. It lays eggs, but suckles it’s young as normal mammals. It suckles it’s young, but not from nipples, the milk seeps from mammary glands that run almost the entire length of it’s body and the milk gathers on clumps of fur for the young.
It has webbed feet, but can retract the webbing to enable ease of digging.
It has a leathery bill, which when young also has teeth. It has a double coat of velvety fur which defies water even in temperatures of freezing point. It has a tail like a beaver which it uses with precision as a rudder. It searches for food with it’s bill, by filtering the bottom of creeks and waterways with precision more sofisticated than our modern radar, sonar and metal detectors. It can detect the slightest movement of the tiniest of molluscs shrimps and worms,even under the mud and rocks. It stores it’s food in pouches in the mouth, then surfaces to sort and chew the food. Although it spends up to 12 hours per day underwater, it can only stay submerged for a minute or two before surfacing. Whilst swimming for food underwater it’s ears and eyes are firmly closed, so it is virtually swimming and searching blind.
When young, both male and female have venomous spurs on each of the hind legs. The females lose these spurs as they mature, but the males retain theirs. The venom, is strong enough to kill a dog, and delivers an extremely painful wound to humans, although no actual deaths have ever been recorded.
This fact alone makes it a unique animal in that it’s the only mammal in the world that can deliver venom, and the effect is much the same as a snake bite.
These spurs are the only defence the Platypus has, and is used also for defending it’s territory against other males during mating season.
Maturity is reached at around 2 years of age. Mating takes place in spring from September onwards into summer, depending on temperature.
The 20 metre burrows of a Platypus are rather intricate, in that they have one burrow which is used as a communal living room. Which doubles as a bachelor pad whilst the mother is hatching and caring for the young. A second burrow is dug seperately for nesting only. This burrow is used over and over and becomes more and more intricate and sophisticated as the years go by. The nursery burrow is always sloped upwards and always above water level, to protect it from any rising waters. If ever the entrances are for some reason covered by rising water, they are never used as an entrance again. Entrances are carefully concealed by overhanging grasses or shrubs, or at the base of trees, but always on the banks of creeks, rivers or lakes.
The female carefully lines the nesting burrow with wet leaves to facilitate humidity while hatching the eggs. She lays normally two eggs, but occasionally 1 or 3 may be laid. They are leathery eggs and sticky on the outside, if 3 eggs are laid, they stick together in a triangular shape. The mother curls her body around the eggs to keep them warm during hatching. Incubation is 6 to 10 days duration.
Once hatched the young are suckled with rich milk which seeps onto tufts of fur.
The milk is incredibly rich in iron and solids, much moreso than cows milk. It contains 60% iron and 40% solids.
Babies are born blind and completely helpless.
The Platypus has a life span of between 10 and 15 years.
They hunt for food at night and mostly sleep during the daylight hours.
Diving continuiously for their food, which they then bring to the surface to eat. Before entering their burrows, they carefully groom themselves, on the banks of the creek or river, removing as much moisture from their fur as they can.
They have few predators, but goannas, python snakes (carpet snakes) and water rats are very fond of raiding their burrows and eating the eggs and the new borns. Once the young leave the burrow, the added danger of the introduced foxes and feral cats, also take their toll on numbers.
In aborignal folklore, the Platypus is known as Mallangong, Boonaburra or Tambreet, depending on tribal area. One ‘dreamtime’ story is of Duck, a young female, who disobeyed her elders rules and strayed too far from the pond one day. The elders had warned her of Molluka, the Water-Devil.
Finding herself alone in a strange patch of grass, which was the territory of the Water-Rat. He overpowered her by threatening her with his much feared spear. He took her to his underground den. Forcing her to mate with him. When the eggs hatched, she was very ashamed to bring forth her strange brood. They had fur instead of feathers, they had her bill and webbed feet, but instead of two legs, they had four. On each of their hind legs they had a spur, just like the feared Water-Rat’s spear. And so the life of the Platypus began.
The Platypus has changed very little over the years of evolution. In 1984 an amazing discovery of an opalized Platypus skull, with three very large teeth was made. It was established that it was at least 110 million years old. The only changes that have occurred in the intervening years, has been to lose the teeth, and actually grow smaller in size.
When the earths plates seperated after the ice age, and Australia seperated from mainland asia, the Platypus was left isolated and allowed to continue pretty much as it originally was,
Average size of platypus
males average 50 cm (20 in) in total length while females average 43 cm (17 in)
Average Weight of platypus
Weight varies considerably from 0.7 to 2.4 kg (1.5 to 5.3 lb)
Average age (life span) of platypus
Platypuses in captivity have been recorded as living to at least 16 years. However, because they are such reclusive creatures, little research has been done on platypus lifespans in their natural state. It is estimated that, due to predation by goannas and snakes, platypuses in their natural habitat probably live closer to 4-5 years for males and 6-8 years for females.
Diet of platypus
They eat: yabbies, shrimp, crayfish, earthworms, May flies, dragonflies, mussels, trout eggs, frog eggs, tadpoles, and small frogs and fish.
Platypuses live in creeks and rivers that may lie amid bushland, comprised mainly of eucalyptus (gum) trees, acacia (wattle), callistemon (bottle brush) and other native Australian bush plants. Common grasses and reeds may be found around the creeks where they live.
Natural predators (enemies) of platypus
Natural predators of the platypus include snakes, water rats, goannas, spotted quolls, eels, hawks, owls and eagles. In the north of its range, dingoes are another predator. Lower platypus numbers in far northern Australia are possibly due to predation by crocodiles.