12 Duck-Billed Platypus Facts
(Why Is the Platypus So Weird?)
Every animal is strange in its own way but the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is as weird as they come. In fact, it’s a total oddball.
1. It Was Believed to Be a Hoax Animal.
An animal with the bill and feet of a duck, the tail of a beaver and the body of an otter? Surely, something like that can’t be real!
This was the reaction of scientists when they first discovered the platypus. They were so puzzled by its appearance they called it a fake animal. It was definitely real! In fact, the Platypus Genome Project, to map its DNA, was completed in 2008.
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2. Male Platypus Spur — So Venomous It Can Kill a Dog.
Is a platypus poisonous? Sort of… It is venomous, because it injects venom (through a hollow bony growth on its heel called a spur) rather than just waiting to be eaten, but not all platypuses have these venomous spurs — only the males do. The male platypus is one of only a few venomous mammals, along with some shrews, moles (they paralyze earthworms!) and vampire bats (their anticoagulant saliva is defined as a venom).
Male platypuses have spurs hidden in the ankles of their hind legs. These spurs are connected to venom sacs and will release venom when the platypus is threatened. Mostly, the males use their venom to fight other males during the mating season. In fact, they produce the most venom during breeding season. The males cannot be killed by each other’s venom but they can still get hurt, making the fight more interesting.
The venom can also be used as a defense mechanism and is capable of killing animals up to the size of a small dog. While it isn’t enough to kill a human, the sting can cause extreme pain for weeks.
3. Is a Platypus a Mammal or a Marsupial?
The platypus is classified as a mammal. Mammals give birth to live young. Therefore, the platypus gives birth to live young. Or so you would think. The truth, however, is that not all mammals give live birth! The platypus lays eggs, just like birds and reptiles do. It is one of only five species of egg-laying mammals (called monotremes) and the only one that isn’t a platypus is an echidna.
Every year, sometime after July, the mature female platypus produces one to three round, leathery eggs. The eggs stay inside her body for about 28 days, after which she lays them in a nest and keeps them warm for 10 more days before they hatch.
4. Females Produce Milk Like Sweat.
If platypuses lay eggs, then why are they still classified as mammals? It is because one of the main traits of a mammal is having mammary glands to feed their young, and the platypus has them. Female platypuses produce milk and nurse their young.
They also do this in a way that is different from other female mammals, though. Female platypuses do not have nipples that their young can latch on to. Instead, they produce milk through the pores of their skin, just like you produce sweat. The drops of milk gather in the female’s abdomen and the young lap it up. They are practically helpless after hatching and need to nurse for up to 4 months, after which time they leave the burrow.
5. It Is Also Known as the Duck-Billed Platypus.
Instead of having a furry snout, the platypus sports a bill like that of a duck, which is why it is also called the duck-billed platypus. Its bill doesn’t open and shut like a bird’s, however. It uses its bill to find and catch prey underwater. Then it stores the prey in pouches and brings it up to the surface to eat, using the mouth hidden under its bill.
While a platypus is born with teeth, it eventually loses them. So how does it chew? It has rough pads inside its mouth that are covered in keratin, the same substance that makes our nails and horses’ hooves. The pads grind the food just before the platypus swallows it. Sometimes the platypus eats gravel to help it break down its food.
6. It Uses Electroreception to Find Prey.
The platypus spends a lot of time in the water. What does it do there? It looks for food. How? Believe it or not, the platypus searches for food with its eyes, ears and nose closed. Otherwise, water would get into them. Instead of relying on sight, smell or hearing, like most predators, it relies on something called electroreception.
Maybe you’ve heard that sharks have electroreceptors — special cells that detect electric pulses — on their snouts, called ampullae of Lorenzo. The platypus also has electroreceptors, in its bill. Every living creature emits electric pulses, produced when muscles contract. The platypus senses these pulses, zooms in on its prey and captures it.
7. It Has Webbed Feet — That It Can’t Walk On.
The feet of a platypus are strange. They are webbed, just like duck feet, to help it swim, acting like paddles. The webbing of the platypus’ front feet can also be folded back so that it can use its sharp claws to dig its burrow.
While the platypus’ feet serve it well underwater, they are practically useless on land. In fact, they make it very hard for the platypus to walk on land, so it walks on its knuckles instead. This is still a hard feat which results in the platypus spending 30% more energy walking on land than it does moving in the water.
8. It Has No Stomach.
Some animals started out with no stomachs and then evolved to have them. In the case of the platypus, it is the opposite. The platypus started out with a stomach and then, millions of years ago, lost it.
The diet of the platypus changed, probably from complex proteins to simple proteins that didn’t need enzymes or acid to break them down, and so as the platypus stopped needing a stomach its body evolved and changed and got rid of it.
Now all that makes up the digestive system of the platypus are its esophagus and intestine, which is really quite short. The result of this is that the platypus goes through food fast — which in turn means that the platypus needs to eat a lot. In fact, the platypus has to eat 20% to 30% of its own weight each day in order to survive. It spends about twelve hours a day just looking for food and eating.
9. It Shares Certain Bone Structures with Reptiles.
We’ve already established that the platypus is a mammal, but that it shares certain features with reptiles. Not only does the platypus lay eggs and release venom like a reptile, it also has certain bone structures found only in reptiles.
One is the interclavicle, the T-shaped bone found between the platypus’ collar bone and breastbone. The other is the structure of the bones in the platypus’ legs, which are splayed just like the legs of crocodiles, instead of being directly under them. However, they do rotate in their sockets just like the legs of other mammals.
10. It Has Awesome Fur — Not Always a Good Thing.
You’ve probably never seen a piece of clothing made from platypus fur, but it is a fact that platypuses were heavily hunted for their fur until the early 20th century. This is because platypus fur is very fine and very dense, so dense that it keeps the platypus practically waterproof. There are about 600 to 900 hairs covering every square millimeter of the platypus’ skin — more than polar bears and river otters.
11. It Stores Fat in Its Tail.
The main function of the platypus’ tail is not to make warning splashing sounds or flatten mud like that of the beaver. Rather, this is where the platypus stores about half its body fat. You can tell how healthy or well nourished a platypus is just by squeezing its tail.
In addition, the platypus uses its tail like a rudder while swimming, to steer it in the right direction. Female platypuses also use their tails to make their nests and keep their eggs warm and safe.
12. It Is Found Only in Australia.
About 60 million years ago, the platypus may have been found outside Australia, or so a fossil found in Argentina suggests. Today, however, it is found only in Australia, particularly in eastern Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. It is found in the wild, where it has a thriving population and is listed as a species of Least Concern, and it is also found in various wildlife sanctuaries.
As of 2013, there are no platypuses in captivity outside Australia, and it is unlikely there will be any, even though kangaroos, dingoes and koalas can be found in many zoos worldwide. Why? Platypuses in captivity appear to have much shorter lifespans and much lower breeding rates. Even in Australian zoos, they are not bred regularly.