The platypus is one of the most fascinating species on our planet. Not only because this mammal lays eggs, is venomous and has a bill like a duck, but because it is the most evolutionary distinct mammal that exist today.
The platypus (Ornithorhycnhus anatinus) is a very remarkable species and is the most evolutionary distinct mammal alive today. Platypus are endemic to Australia and are widespread in the countries’ eastern states. They occupy a wide range of habitats and climates, but are dependent on river streams and bodies of freshwater.
The platypus is one of only five species in the order Monotremata, which differ from all other mammals in that they lay eggs covered by a shell that hatch outside the mother’s body. After laying the egg, the female platypus incubates the eggs for about 10 days, after which the vulnerable newly hatched young are fed mother milk that is released through pores in the skin. Next to their egg-laying ability, the fact that Monotremes have a body temperature of about 32˚C and have legs which extend out instead of vertically below them, make them closely resemble reptiles.
No other animal on Earth looks quite like the platypus. The distinctive features that make the platypus so instantly recognizable are its duck-like bill, dense, waterproof fur, webbed feet, and broad, flattened tail. The combination of these features was so surprising that when European naturalists first encountered it, they even considered it an elaborate fraud.
It’s most distinctive feature is it’s bill, which is not hard like the bill of a duck, but soft and pliable. Interestingly, the bill is the animals major sensory organ. While diving for 20 to 40 seconds, the platypus closes its eyes and uses the highly sensitive bill to probe the muddy bottom, aided by an array of electro-receptors capable of detecting the small muscle activity of prey.
Platypuses can spent up to 12 hours a day diving for food. While its heavily webbed front-feed provide propulsion through the water, its hind-feed act more like rudders. Interestingly, the webbing is folded back when walking on land. The tail is used for storage of fat reserves.
Another curious fact about these animals is that, among very few other mammals, the platypus is venomous. Male platypuses have spurs on the inside of their hind legs that delivers a venom capable of causing severe pain to humans and is capable of killing other animals such as dogs.
Because of the fact that the platypus already diverged from echidnas about 20 million years ago together with the very low number of extant monotreme species, the Platypus is a frequent subject of research in evolutionary biology. Interestingly, in 2008, a paper was published in nature which revealed that both reptilian and mamalian elements were found in a draft version of the Platypus genome.
Because of conservation measures, the platypus does not appear to be in immediate danger of extinction, which is reflected by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation fo Nature and Natural Resources) also listing the platypus as being a species of ‘least concern’. However, its dependence on streams and rivers, which are subject to considerable human interference, make the species at least potentially vulnerable to extinction in the long term. It is therefore very important to stop the habitat disruption caused by dams, irrigation, pollution and netting.
Although I have visited Australia for over 5 months, I have never witnessed one of these fascinating animals. Travelling through the diverse habitats of Australia’s easterns states I hoped to spot one diving up and down in one of the many river’s and pools. However, at the same time it is good to know that platypuses have been able to evade most of the humans disturbance of their natural environment.