Steve
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The Duck Billed Platypus

The Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, has been known by many different names.  In an account of an early exploration they were referred to as Water Moles.

Monotreme

The Platypus is one of only two types of mammal that lays eggs.  The other type is the Echidna.  There are at least two species of Echidna, but only one of Platypus.  Both were extremely successful animals before Europeans arrived in Australia. They started systematically hunting Platypuses for their fur.

Habitat and Diet

The Platypus is semiaquatic.  It spends much of its life in the water, living in burrows in the riverbank.  They live on the small water creatures.  Although fish are not a major part of their diet they will certainly eat some small ones.

The main food of the Platypus is invertebrates.  This includes Yabbies and other fresh water Crayfish.  They also eat worms of all types and insects, especially aquatic insect larvae.

On average, a Platypus will eat about a fifth of their body weight a day, but there have been reports that they will eat as much as their own body weight if they can catch enough.

Catching Food

As far as is known, they only eat water creatures although I can well imagine that if they found a nice juicy Earthworm in their home borrow they would eat it.

Underwater they close their eyes and ears. They do not use their sense of smell either.  Their bill has both touch sensors and electro sensors that detect tiny electric currents associated with the muscular contractions of their small prey species.

They catch their food underwater, but come up to eat.

Venomous

Before Europeans came to Australia, one of the main predators of the Platypus was the big Australian Water Rat.  These are not a particular threat to the adult Platypuses, but could take the babies.  In the breeding season, the Male Platypus produced venom.  The Platypus can sting with its spurs.  A Platypus sting can kill a Water Rat.  It would also probably kill a Fox.

Although there have been no reported Human deaths from Platypus stings, it is apparently very painful.  It has been likened to the bite of a venomous, but non lethal, snake. 

Swimming with Platypuses

When I was in Eungella National Park in Queensland, I was able to see a platypus.  One of the rangers told me that when his children were younger they would swim with the Platypuses.  Apparently the animals accepted the children with no difficulty.  There were certainly no stings.

Plural of Platypus

In this article, I have been using the word Platypuses as the plural of Platypus.  No doubt some people might object that the correct plural form of Platypus should be Platypode.  However, while Platypuses will be understood as the plural of Platypus, only people who already know a lot about this animal will understand Platypode.  It is interesting to note that the spell checker of Microsoft Word accepts Platypuses, but not Platypode.  Some people use the word Platypi.

Platypus Breeding

The scientific community had finally accepted the fact that the Platypus was an actual animal, not a hoax by a taxidermist.  The first British scientist to see a living Platypus was Charles Darwin. 
Then they were faced with the ridiculous claim by the native people of Australia that it laid eggs.

Egg Laying

Eventually, scientists accepted the fact that this animal is an egg laying mammal.

Breeding Burrows

The female Platypus digs a nesting burrow.  This is about 20 metres (60 feet) long.  It is an elaborate structure with several chambers.

The mother to be builds a nest with soft vegetation.  When there are babies in the nest she plugs the burrow with soil as she leaves.  This presumably makes it more difficult for platypus predators to get the babies.

Breeding

A male and a female meet and mate.  About 21 days later, the female lays up to 3 eggs in her burrow.

The eggs are incubated between the belly and the tail of the female and hatch in about 10 days.  Of course, being mammals, Platypuses are warm blooded.  The actual body temperature is lower than most mammals, but the eggs still have to be kept warm like bird eggs, not just left like many reptile eggs.

Baby Platypuses

A Baby Echidna is called a Puggle, and many people extend this to include baby platypuses.  Platypup has also been used, but I am not sure that most people would understand either without explanation.

Milk

Like all mammals, the Platypus produces milk for its babies.  They do not have nipples, but the milk comes out of special pores in the mother’s skin so the babies can lap it up.

Babies

At six weeks old, the babies are fully furred and have their eyes open.  At this point they can leave the burrow with their mother for short periods.  They are weaned at about four months.

The nearest relative to the Platypus is the Echidna.  A major difference between the two is that while the Echidna does not train its young in adult survival techniques, with the Platypus there is a reasonable length of time that the babies can be with their mother and, at least potentially, pick up survival skills.

This difference may be very significant.

The teaching of the young ones by the parents or other older members of the species is common to nearly all mammals and most birds.

Successful

The way the Platypus breeds may sound clumsy, but it works.  The Platypus is a very successful animal in its own niche.

An illustration of the difficulty of finding the nest is illustrated by the difficulties of the final successful search for the Platypus eggs. 

W. H. Caldwell was a scientist sent out from England to finally settle the question of whether the Platypus laid eggs.  He very sensibly enlisted the help of the Australian native people who knew the most about this animal. 

The scientist enlisted the help of 150 of the native people.  These people are renown for their tracking ability, sharp eyes and knowledge of the Australian bush.

Even with this large workforce it took a long time to find some eggs. 

Conservation Status of the Platypus

Least Concern

Even now, the Platypus is not a threatened species.  It was reported as being extinct in South Australia, but South Australia does not have a lot of waterways suitable for Platypuses. Despite this, at one time, there was actually a platypus fur industry established on the River Onkaparinga near the town of Noarlunga in South Australia.

The Platypus is now starting to make a comeback in South Australia.  They were introduced to Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, and this is a good place to see them.  They have also been bred successfully at Warrawong Sanctuary near Mylor in the Adelaide Hills.  This is another good place to see them. 

There have also been reports of wild Platypuses in South Australia.  It is speculated that these might have come from escapees from Warrawong.

In the Eastern states of Australia, Platypuses occupy the same areas that they did before European settlement.  The numbers are down, but in most areas are no longer decreasing.

Threats

Before Humans came, they would sometimes be taken by snakes, goannas and the large native water Rat.

Now they also have to cope with Foxes.  Foxes were introduced into Australia in the Early 1800’s for recreational hunting, so the English could dress up in fancy clothes and ride around the country on horses with a pack of dogs. 

It is sometimes incorrectly stated that Foxes were introduced to control Rabbits.  Wild Rabbits did not become a problem on Mainland Australia until Wild Rabbits were deliberately introduced in 1859.  This was several decades after Foxes were introduced.

Despite this new threat, Platypuses are able to thrive, and now that they are totally protected they are doing all right.

The Northern parts of Australia are not so good for Platypuses.  It is probable that the Crocodiles eat them.

Pollution

This animal needs reasonably pure water.  Not only for itself, but also so their prey species can survive.  Some of Australia’s rivers have become polluted and these are unsuitable for this animal.

Fungus

In the island state of Tasmania, there is concern about a fungus infection caused by Mucor amphiborum.  This is killing some of the Platypuses.  The situation is being studied by the wildlife authorities of that state.  It is not yet known how serious it is going to become.  So far this fungus has not been reported in mainland populations.

Habitat Destruction

As the Human population increases, some rivers and creeks are being tamed in the sense that the banks are now concrete.  Some creeks are now put in underground pipes.  This means fewer places for the animals to live.  Dogs are also a problem.



An excellent book about Platypuses is "Platypus (Australian Natural History Series) by  Tom Grant, and Dominic Fanning
 
 
Platypus at Sydney Aquarium
By Stefan Kraft [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.
 
 
 
Platypus at Melbourne Zoo
by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST. [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.
 
 
 
Platypus in Eugella National Park
By Msdstefan at de.wikipedia (Original text : Stefan Heinrich) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], from Wikimedia Commons