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Ornithorhynchus anatinus

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Platypus • Ornithorhynchus anatinus
One of Australia’s most well known animals is the platypus, which is part of the Monotremata family. There are only three species of monotreme in the world, the platypus and two species of echidnas.

What are Monotremes?
Monotreme comes from the Greek mono-, single or one; + trema, hole. What this means is that the urinary, digestive and reproductive organs have a common opening. Monotremes have lower body temperatures than other mammals and have legs which extend out, then vertically below them. They also lay eggs, which make them more like a lizard than a mammal.

Where did they come from?

According to Aboriginal legend, the first platypus were born after a young female duck mated with a lonely and persuasive water-rat. The duck’s offspring had their mother’s bill and webbed feet and their father’s four legs and handsome brown fur. 

The early British colonists called the platypus a ‘water mole’.  The Aboriginal people had many different names including ‘boondaburra’, ‘mallingong’ and ‘tambreet’.

Fossil records based on a fragment of lower jaw found in opal deposits at Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, describe a type of ancestral platypus (Steropodon galmani) that existed alongside the dinosaurs about 110 million years ago.

In 1991, a fossil tooth belonging to a different kind of ancient platypus (originally described as Monotrematum sudamericanum but now probably regarded as another Obdurodon species) was discovered in the Patagonian desert of Argentina. The tooth was found in sediments deposited over 60 million years ago, at the time when Australia and South America were still joined as part of the southern supercontinent Gondwana.

Fossils belonging to three other extinct platypus species (Obdurodon insignis, Obdurodon dicksoni, and Obdurodon sp. A) have been found in Australian sediments deposited between 25 and 15 million years ago, while a leg bone from the first close relative of the modern platypus (Ornithorhynchus sp.) has been dated to about 4.5 million years ago. The earliest known remains of the platypus in its current form (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) date back to around 100,000 years ago.

The platypus is sometimes described as a ‘living fossil’ because of this ancient lineage and its combination of mammalian and reptilian features.

Eungella PlatypusDescription
The platypus has a streamlined body, with the male averaging 50 centimetres long and weighing about 1.7 kilograms. Females platypus are smaller. It has a broad horizontally flattened tail, that stabilises it underwater, as well as stores fat. The characteristic bill has thousands of touch-sensitive and electro-sensitive pores that can detect the electric currents generated by small prey. The eyes and ears lie in a furrow that closes when the platypus is submerged. Its waterproof fur coat consists of an inner layer of fine hairs that trap air and an outer layer of longer, flat-bladed hairs, that give insulation ensuring that it can survive, sometimes up to 12 hours each day in water as cold as 0 degrees Celsius. With its webbed feet, the platypus swims with alternate strokes of the forefeet only, with the webbing folding back for walking and burrowing, and during the return stroke in swimming.

The young of both sexes have a spur on each hind leg. The female sheds hers during the first year but the adult males retain them all their life. The spur in the adult are about 1.5 cm long, and connected to a venom gland capable of inflicting a painful wound. It is thought that males, who become aggressive during the mating season, use these spurs to sometimes hurt each other. The venom can cause excruciating pain in humans and is strong enough to kill a dog.

Platypus are capable of many vocalisations including a soft growling sound when disturbed. In the wild the Platypus is known to live for at least 12 years.

The Platypus is a seasonal breeder with males and females reaching sexual maturity at an age of two years. Mating occurs from September onwards, although it seems to occur later in southern areas. Incubation of the eggs take about six to ten days. They hatch about early November and the young are suckled by the female for about 4 to 5 months. The female has no teats, hence the young are suckled by producing milk in large glands under her skin which can be up to one-third of her body’s length. The milk oozes out onto a patch of fur and the young Platypus sucks it up. Platypus milk has about 60 times more iron than the milk of cows. The milk also contains about 40 per cent solids, compared with only 12 per cent solids in cow’s milk.

The nesting burrows are about three to eight metres long and are usually found above water level. The female fills the chamber of the burrow with wet leaves, creating a moist atmosphere for incubation.

Foraging and Diet
The Platypus is an opportunistic predator, feeding on all kinds of insect larvae, freshwater shrimp, bivalve molluscs, frogs and fish eggs. Foraging consists of repeated dives between 20 and 90 seconds duration. After successful dives, the platypus will sort and chew the captured prey. Horny buccal pads are used by the adult to grind the food as only juveniles have teeth. While the platypus is submerged food is held in special cheek pouches.

Source: Australian Platypus Conservancy.

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Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Monotremata
Family: Ornithorhynchidae
Genus: Ornithorhynchus
Species: O. anatinus
- Platypus

Platypus • Other links

Parks & Wildlife, Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment
Information includes Echidnas and Platypus.
Australian Platypus Conservancy
• PO Box 84, WHITTLESEA VIC 3757
• Ph: 03 9716 1626 • Fax: 03 9716 1664 • Email
All you ever wanted to know about the platypus as well as its conservation.
Platypus Care Program (Australian Platypus Conservancy) • Email
Help in the care and conservation of the Platypus.
Science Frontiers
The unusual and unexplained, a bi-monthly newsletter - read about the Platypus Paradoxes.
Nature Science Update •
Is an authoritative and accessible online round-up of what's new in science research, updated daily at midnight GMT by the Nature News Service. Read about The sleep of the platypus.
Unique Australian Animals
Email Check out the section on the Platypus, that includes images.


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