Although the platypus was well known in the remote areas where it lives, the Western world had no evidence of their existence until the late 18th century when a preserved pelt was sent back to England. Instead of this outrageously unique animal being heralded, it was dismissed as a well-made hoax since none of the renowned scientists of the day could believe that such a creature could truly exist. Even the Aboriginal people of Australia had a legend of a duck and a water rat mating to produce the platypus, so there was a precedent for their disbelief.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Subkingdom - Bilateria
Phylum - Chordata
Infraphylum - Gnathostomata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Monotremata
Family - Ornithorhynchidae
Genus – Ornithorhynchus
Species – Ornithorhynchus anatinus
Common Names – Platypus, Duck-billed Platypus, Water Mole, Mallangong (local), Dulaiwarrung (local)
The platypus is a mammal, but a very unusual one. It lays eggs, the males are venomous, the legs protrude from the sides, and it has its characteristic rubbery duck-like snout. The females do produce milk, but it is excreted from glands and the young suck it from the mother's fur, rather than suckling like other mammals. The dense fur helps to insulate them and they care for it much the way otters do, constantly grooming their pelts to keep them water resistant. They are found in freshwater environments along the east coast of Australia, although they are extinct in several of their historic locations and little is known about their more inland populations.
Platypus are monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals, a tiny group of only five known species which includes platypus and echidnas. All monotremes are found in Australia or New Guinea. Like the placement of their legs and the male's venom, the eggs they lay are decidedly reptile-like. The very fact that they laid eggs was not confirmed by Western scientists until 1884, although there is ample evidence that the local aborigines understood this fact long before. They are generally solitary and the mating season is the only time they socialize. There is also evidence that the male's venom increases significantly during the mating season, indicating that its primary function is to ward off potential rivals.
Momotremes, along with some dolphins, are the only known mammals who use electroreception. They feed underwater, but they close their eyes, ears, and nose when swimming and use electroreceptors in their bill to find their prey. Platypus sleep for the majority of the day in dens just above the water surface but they are clumsy on land and prefer to spend their waking moments in the water. Much of their diet consists of crustaceans, which can be difficult for them to consume since they have no teeth, only plates in their bill. They may use rocks that they collect in their beaks from the bottom of the waterways to help them crush the more tricky items.
Monotremes once made up a much larger percentage of Australia's fauna, existing alongside of dinosaurs. Fossilized monotremes have been found in Argentina, but they seem to date from a period when Australia, Antarctica, and Patagonia were one continent. The earliest known platypus-like monotreme was the Obdurodon dicksoni, which has been dated to about 20 million years ago, while the platypus itself dates back at least 100,000 years.
Platypus are not listed as threatened, although they are extinct in some of their historic range. Unfortunately, they are still little understood and their numbers could be declining without anyone being aware.
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
Australian Platypus Conservancy
Platypus (Australian Natural History Series) by Tom Grant