The Upside Down Under
Australian Platypus


The Platypus is one of Australia's, and the world's, most unique animals. It has webbed feet like a frog, a bill like a duck, venom like a snake, a tail like a beaver, fur like an otter and lays eggs like a bird.

It is a uniquely Australian species. The combination of the duck bill, the flat tail and webbed feet have always fascinated people.  It is sometimes referred to as the duck-billed platypus and is a semiaquatic egg-laying mammal endemic to eastern Australia, including Tasmania.

Australia's Duck-Billed Platypus
Australia's Duck-Billed Platypus

Local aboriginal stories tell of a young female duck falling in love with a lonely and persuasive water-rat to give birth to the first platypus. Indigenous people appear to have been aware that the platypus lays eggs and suckles their young, and even that the hind spur of the male is venomous. Traditional New South Wales names for the platypus include "mallangong" and "tambreet".

Platypus and Duck

Characteristics of a Platypus

No other animal on Earth looks quite like the platypus. It's distinctive features make it instantly recognizable.  It has a 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.

Platypus characteristics
A diagram showing the characteristics of the platypus - image by Elisa Detrez

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.

They 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.

A Platypus swimming
A beautiful photo of a swimming platypus. Photo by Peter Arnold / BIOS.

Platypuses can swim through fast waters at the speed of around 1 metre per second, but when foraging the speed is closer to 0.4 metres per second. However, it is not well adapted for walking on land. The limbs are short, heavy and splayed away from the body, and it uses almost 30% more energy when moving on land, compared to a terrestrial mammal of similar size.

A Dangerous Creature

Another curious fact about these animals is that, among very few other mammals, the platypus is venomous. The males 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.

Venomous spur of the platypus
The male  injects venom through it's spurs.

Males have a pair of spurs on their hind limbs that secrete venom that is only seasonally active to breeding season, supporting the theory that the use of venom is for competition of mates only, not protection. While the spur remains available for defense outside of breeding season, the venom gland lacks secretion. While the after effects are described as excruciatingly painful, this venom is not lethal to humans.

Lays Eggs but Suckles its Young

The Platypus is one of only three species of mammals that lay eggs (a non-mammalian feature) but suckle their young (a mammalian feature). These mammals (order Monotremata) resemble reptiles in that they lay rubbery shell-covered eggs that are incubated and hatched outside the mother’s body.

Platypus nest
A nest of platypus eggs showing their size in relation to a household pen.

They are, however, classed as mammals because they have fur and a four-chambered heart, nurse their young from gland milk, are warm-blooded, and have some mammalian skeletal features.

During the egg incubation period, a female holds the eggs pressed by her tail to her belly, while curled up. She intermittently leaves the burrow, however, much of this aspect of the animal’s life is still unknown. When the young hatch, the female starts secreting milk and the young Platypuses suckle from the two milk patches covered by fur on the female’s abdomen.

A pair of young platypuses
A pair of young platypuses

The female spends most of this time with her young in the burrow, and as the young grow, she increasingly leaves them to forage. Towards the end of the summer the young emerge from the burrow and their fate as young independent animals is still largely unknown.

Until the early 20th century, it was hunted for its fur, but it is now protected throughout its range. Although captive breeding programs have had only limited success and the platypus is vulnerable to the effects of pollution, it is not under any immediate threat.



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