When George Shaw wrote the first written description of the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in 1799, he first carefully checked the specimen he had been sent from Australia for signs of stitching. Even so, many of his naturalist colleagues continued to believe it was a hoax: a duck’s bill sewn on to the body of a small beaver.
It took 30 years for it to be accepted as a mammal – the lack of nipples made it difficult to locate the mammary glands under its stomach fur. But it wasn’t until 1884 that the real bombshell fell. A Scottish embryologist called W. H. Caldwell, finally uncovered a platypus nest and revealed the astonishing news that here was a mammal that laid eggs (the Aborigines had been saying this for years, but no one had listened).
The platypus has remained notorious ever since, ridiculed as evolution’s little joke.
Platypuses mate underwater.
Perhaps of all animals the platypus is the most difficult to skin.
Biologists classify mammals into two divisions: ‘Echidnas and the duck-billed platypus’, and everything else.
The platypus produces eggs and milk so could theoretically could make its own custard.
A popular 19th-century view, still held in some quarters, describes the platypus as a crude early prototype of the mammal, subsequently abandoned.
It is true that together with the four species of egg-laying echidnas it sits in the monotreme (‘one-holed’) order, the oldest surviving group of mammals. But to disparage it as a primitive, ‘halfway house’ between reptiles and mammals makes no more sense than calling a craftsman who builds wooden furniture from scratch more ‘primitive’ than someone who puts up flat-pack shelving from Ikea.
The platypus is a perfect example of a creature that has, in isolation, adapted itself to exploit a rich habitat. Think of it as Australia’s otter, an opportunistic carnivore, guzzling down freshwater crayfish, shrimps, fish and tadpoles with little competition. It has kept some of the ‘reptilian’ features, like egg-laying and a lizard-like way of walking, because there was no pressure to change them.
The duck-billed platypus has also evolved many new adaptations of astonishing sophistication. The most ingenious of these is the ‘duck’s bill’ itself.
The platypus is a nocturnal creature, feeding at night and dozing in its burrow or ‘wedging’ under a rock or tree root by day. Hunting at night under water poses a challenge, as smell and sight are useless. The platypus’s solution – unique among mammals – is to borrow a trick from fish and turn its ‘nose’ into an electrical probe. The bill is covered in 40,000 sensors that can pick up the tiniest electrical fields generated by muscle impulses in their prey. As well as that, it also has 60,000 motion sensors, allowing it to act as both eye and hand, with mechanical and electrical information combining to create a vivid picture of its dark underwater world.
The platypus has come up with its own dual-purpose propulsion system. Like beavers, the tail is used to store fat, but when swimming, it acts as a rudder not a propeller. All the power comes from the large webbed front limbs. On land, these skin flaps fold away so it can use its front claws to burrow.
Though as fast as an otter in water, the platypus rivals the mole as a digger of tunnels on land, which earned it the name ‘watermole’ among the early settlers.
The platypus is a genus of tropical wood-boring ambrosia beetle, of which there are about 1,000 species. The duck-billed platypus was named Platypus Anatinus (flat-footed, bird-like) by George Shaw in 1799, but it was changed within a year when it was found that the name was already taken. And it was changed, only a year later, by a German Anatomist called Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who named it: Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus (a paradox of an animal with a bird-like mouth).The name was finally changed to Ornithorhynchus Anatinus (duck-like animal with bird-like mouth) so everyone was happy. However, everyone was so used to calling it a platypus that it has remained that.
Do you think God gets stoned? I think so… look at the platypus.
A disturbed platypus sounds like a mini chainsaw.
Duck-billed platypuses keep their eyes closed when swimming underwater.
Mammals that lay eggs are called monotremes, from the Greek meaning 'only one orifice'.
Platypuses sleep for about 14 hours a day.
Platypuses store their food in cheek pouches and, mash it up at the surface with gravel as they have no teeth.