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Platypus: Ornithorhynchus anatinus

a.k.a. “Platypus” or “Bewick’s Platypus”

Taxonomy: Animalia; Chordata; Mammalia; Monotremata; Ornithorhynchidae; Ornithorhynchus; Ornithorhynchus anatinus

Common Names: platypus, watermole, duckbill, and duckmole.

Localities: Native to Eastern Australia including Tasmania, with ancestors from South America. They live on the edges of rivers and freshwater lakes where they can burrow.

When white settlers first encountered this mammal, it was defined a hoax. It took over a hundred years to be accepted by the scientific community as defined a semi-aquatic mammal, as one of five extant species of monotremes – mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young. They are egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammals that represent creatures of faerie tales and legends. It became so popular to Australia’s iconography, it was placed as a national symbol, appears as a mascot to national events, and was featured on a reverse of the 20 cent coin. The oldest fossil of a platypus dates from 100,000 years ago in the Quaternary period.

Paraphrased from Australian National Museum displays and exhibits: Platypuses are found only in Australia, though their ancestors lived in South America. With waterproof fur and webbed feet, platypuses are uniquely adapted to life in fresh water throughout Australia and Tasmania; they breathe air, but can stay underwater for about five minutes at a time, storing the food they catch in special pouches in their cheeks. The platypus was first seen by Europeans in 1797. The first Drawings were based on a preserved specimen sent to Joseph Banks in England by New South Wales governor John Hunter. The earliest published drawing was done in 1800 from “A General History of Quadrapeds” by Thomas Bewick. “Hoax?: “Of all animals yet known it seems the most extroadinary in its conformation. ~ George Shaw, 1799. In 1797, when the first platypus reached Europe pickled in brandy, scientists in Europe were suspicious. They could not believe one animal could have both a beak and fur. They thought it was a hoax. Even now, the fact that the platypus makes a nest, lays eggs, and suckles its young, seems remarkable. From Hoax to Enigma: The Natives have exhibited their ignorance of the natural history of the platypus by asserting that the young are produced from eggs. ~ Arthur Nichols, 1883. “ Platypuses and Echidnas were no mystery to Aboriginal people, who were well acquainted with their habits and biology. They told the first Europeans who arrived in Australia that platypuses and echnidnas laid eggs, but scientists in Europe did not believe this. It took nearly 100 years before it was accepted that the platypus really did lay eggs. “O’ thou prehistoric link, kin to beaver, rooster, skink, duck, mole, adder, monkey, fox, Paleothoic paradox! Beak of shovellers, spur of fowl; cheek of monkey (pocket jowl); trowel of beaver, gait of skink; Dope of adder, foxy stink. ~ Harry Burrell, “The Mud-sucking Platypus: A Brief History; about 1925.” During the day, the platypus rests in burrows they dig along river and freshwater lake edges within banks that overhang the river, here they bask in the sun and groom their dense fur. They are most active at night, which is when they feed, for several hours after dusk and before dawn. They are excellent swimmers and divers. When diving, they keep their eyes and ears shut using its webbed forefeet to swim downwards fighting its natural buoyancy. Webbing on the front feet extend beyond the claws forming large paddles for swimming. They can stay under for over two minutes, though can rest upwards of 10 minutes underwater under a submerged object. It’s bill resembles that of a duck’s bill which is really a elongated snout covered with soft, moist, leathery skin and sensitive nerve endings. Their bodies can be upwards of 12-18 inches long, with a 4-6 inches long flattened tail, and webbed feet. They can weigh upwards of 5+ lbs. They have three layers of fur – an inner layer to trap air and keep the animal warm, a middle layer working like a wet suit, and an outer layer to sense distance from objects. They have been known to live for upwards of 12 years in the wild. The male platypus has a sharp, hollow, horny spur that is about 15 mm long on the inside of both of its hind leg ankles which is connected to a venom gland producing a very strong toxin they use in defense against predators. They are monotremes, a rare form of mammal that do lay eggs instead of live birth. As the males are larger than females, they mate once a year from late June and in October. Females lay two to four eggs, incubated against her abdomen, and milk is produced in large glands under her skin oozing out onto a patch of fur that the offspring suckle.

Loss of Habitat, Humans, snakes, water rats, foxes, and goannas.

The platypus eats aquatic insect larvae, shrimps and worms found in the bottom silt of rivers and freshwater lakes and can eat their own body weight in food in one night.

Once hunted for its fur, it is now a protected species.



Folklore and Magical Uses:

Written and researched by Thomas Baurley, Leaf McGowan, Technogypsie Research Services. November 25, 2011.

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