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What is a Platypus?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A platypus, sometimes called a duck-billed platypus or more formally by its Latin name, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is a unique semi-aquatic mammal native to Australia, including the island of Tasmania. It is classified as a monotreme, which means that it lays eggs and incubates them like a bird or reptile, but it feeds its young with milk, so it is considered a mammal. The unusual appearance and lifestyle of the animal led to a great deal of disbelief among early Australian explorers, and Europeans were inclined to consider early reports as pranks, rather than accurate biological reports.

An adult platypus can reach 2 feet (60 centimeters) in length, and 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms) in weight. The animal has dense dark brown fur that is very soft, and a soft flexible beak like muzzle that lacks teeth, although it has a tooth-like edge to help the platypus root for food along the bottoms of rivers. Its four stout legs end in five-toed webbed feet, and males have poisonous spurs on their rear feet that may be used as a defense mechanism in a time of need. The animal also has a flattened, broad tail that reminds many observers of a beaver. During the course of a day, a platypus will eat almost its weight in insects, amphibians, grubs, crustaceans, and some plants.

In general, the platypus does not stray too far from a water source, nesting near streams, rivers, and ponds in burrows dug above the water level, and building special nests for egg incubation which consist of long tunnels that terminate in a soft, lined nest. It lines its burrows and nests with moist straw, and the female incubates her clutch of one to four eggs alone. When the eggs hatch, the young are fed in the nest for several weeks, usually emerging after five to six weeks to explore their environment. After four months, the young are weaned.

Although the platypus is not considered a threatened species, it does suffer as a result of contact with humans. Initially, it was hunted for its soft, desirable fur before it became a protected species under the Australian national government and Tasmanian state government. Construction around bodies of water in the animal's range has led to shrinking habitat, and both governments have education programs to encourage landowners to consider the platypus when they work, build, play, and consider modifications to bodies of water on their properties. With committed conservation efforts, the unique animal and its endearing facial expressions will endure to delight and mystify future generations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a platypus?

The platypus is a unique semiaquatic mammal native to eastern Australia, including Tasmania. It is one of the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young, a characteristic it shares with the echidna, making them monotremes. The platypus is known for its duck-like bill, webbed feet, and beaver-like tail, which aid in its aquatic lifestyle.

How does the platypus reproduce?

Platypuses reproduce by laying eggs, which is highly unusual for mammals. The female platypus usually lays one to three eggs and keeps them warm by curling around them. After about ten days, the eggs hatch, and the mother feeds the young with milk secreted from mammary gland ducts, as platypuses lack nipples.

What does a platypus eat and how does it find its food?

A platypus diet consists mainly of aquatic invertebrates such as insect larvae, worms, and freshwater shrimp. It forages underwater, using its bill to detect prey through electrolocation. Sensitive to electric fields generated by muscle contractions, the platypus can locate prey in murky waters without relying on sight.

Is the platypus venomous?

Yes, the male platypus has a venomous spur on its hind foot that can deliver a painful injection of venom, particularly during the breeding season. While the venom is not lethal to humans, it can cause severe swelling and discomfort. The purpose of the venom is thought to be for defense or dominance among males.

What is the conservation status of the platypus?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the platypus is currently listed as "Near Threatened." Habitat destruction, water pollution, and climate change are significant threats to their populations. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the survival of this distinctive species.

How does the platypus contribute to its ecosystem?

The platypus plays a vital role in its ecosystem as a predator of aquatic invertebrates, helping to maintain healthy waterways. By controlling the populations of these organisms, it contributes to the ecological balance of its habitat. Its burrowing activities also help to aerate riverbanks, promoting vegetation growth and stability.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By GenevaMech — On Oct 08, 2010

@ Alchemy- An interesting fact about platypus venom is that it may one day prove to be medically beneficial. The defensin proteins in platypus venom are similar to the defensin retrocyclin, which has proved somewhat effective against the transmission of HIV, Herpes simplex, and Influenza.

Defensins are essentially proteins created by the immune system to protect the body against bacterial and viral pathogens. Baby marsupials are coated in defensins to help protect them against bacterial and viral infection. Who knows what beneficial medicines may one day evolve from the venom of something like a platypus.

By Alchemy — On Oct 08, 2010

@ Pelestears- I have heard that a strike by a platypus spur is one of the most painful experiences on earth. From what I understand, the venom has no anti-venom, and causes instant fluid build-up around the infected area. The victim experiences excruciating pain that can last for days, and turns into severely increased sensitivity to pain that can last for months more. The heightened sensitivity to pain is likely caused by nerve damage from the poison, which is a venom cocktail that contains numerous different proteins made by the platypus' immune system.

While these proteins may be used as an offensive mechanism during the platypus mating rituals, I would still not want to run across an angry male platypus. Being subject to this type of pain would not be something fun.

By PelesTears — On Oct 08, 2010

Only the male platypus is poisonous. The female platypus is born with a set of spurs, but they do not fully develop, and eventually fall off within the first year. Not much is known about the platypus, but the theory is the spurs are used to assert dominance over other males during breeding season. This theory is based on the fact that the males produce more venom during their mating season when competition for females arises.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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