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  • Platypus biology


    One of a kind

    Ornithorhynchus anatinus

    The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is one of Australia’s most unique and iconic species. It is an egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammal that inhabits a variety of freshwater systems along the east coast of mainland Australia and throughout Tasmania.The platypus and several species of echidna are the only egg-laying mammals (monotremes) in the world. It is also one of the few venomous mammals, with the males having venomous spurs on their rear legs that can cause intense pain and swelling in humans.


    Appearance

    The platypus’s unique appearance includes dense insulating fur, webbed feet, a broad flat tail, and, of course, a ‘duck-like’ bill (which is actually not like a duck’s bill at all but is soft and pliable). These features make the platypus ideally adapted to living and foraging in an aquatic environment. The fur is waterproof and traps an insulating layer of air to help the animal maintain a constant body temperature of 32oC (slightly lower than other mammals), even in coldwater.


    Foraging

    Extensive webbing on the front feet enable the platypus to be a strong swimmer. The webbing can be folded back while walking on land or burrowing. While underwater, the platypus’s eyes and ears are closed and it locates its food using electroreceptors in the bill, which detect tiny electrical impulses generated by the muscular contractions of its prey. The platypus’s carnivorous diet mostly consists of aquatic macroinvertebrates (i.e. insect larvae, worms, crustaceans) and they may spend about 12 hours a day searching for food. Platypuses will often be seen doing repeated, short dives of about 30 seconds to forage for food on the bottom.


    Although platypuses are mainly nocturnal, it’s not unusual to see one during the day, particularly at dawn or dusk. When not active, platypuses take refuge in burrows. They are generally solitary animals that will only seek each other out to mate. During the mating season, adult males may travel many kilometres to find available females. Mating occurs from August to October in Victoria (slightly earlier in northern Australia, slightly later in Tasmania) and the female lays 1-3 eggs in late spring. The tiny furless platypuses hatch after approximately 10 days but will remain in the burrow and dependent on the mother for about four months. Like all mammals, the females have mammary glands and feed their young with milk secreted through special patches of skin on their abdomen. Juvenile platypuses leave the maternal burrow and become independent in February to April.


    Further reading

    Platypus ’ by Tom Grant

    www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/platypus

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platypus

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