2006 Wikipedia CD Selection

Conservation status: Lower risk

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Monotremata
Family: Ornithorhynchidae
Genus: Ornithorhynchus
Blumenbach, 1800
Species: O. anatinus
Ornithorhynchus anatinus
( Shaw, 1799)

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a small, half- aquatic mammal endemic to the eastern part of Australia, and one of the five extant species of monotremes, the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young (the other four are echidnas). It is the sole representative of its family ( Ornithorhynchidae) and genus (Ornithorhynchus), though a number of fossilised relatives have been found, some of them also in the Ornithorhynchus genus.

The platypus is considered to be one of the strangest specimens of the animal kingdom: a venomous, egg-laying, duck-billed mammal. Its uniqueness makes it a recognizable symbol of Australia (along with the kangaroo and koala); the platypus is featured on the reverse of the Australian 20-cent coin.


When the platypus was first discovered by Europeans in the late 1700s, a pelt was sent back to Britain and presented for examination by Joseph Banks to the scientific community. The British scientists were at first convinced that the seemingly odd collection of physical attributes must be a hoax, produced by some Asian taxidermist. It was thought that somebody had sewn a duck's beak onto the body of a beaver-like animal. Scientists were also divided over whether the female platypus laid eggs, until this was later confirmed in Australia.

A 19th-century illustration of a platypus
A 19th-century illustration of a platypus

The scientific name Ornithorhynchus is derived from ορνιθορυγχος ("ornithorhynkhos"), which literally means "bird nose" in Greek, and anatinus means "duck-like". The common name is Latin platypus, derived from the Greek words πλατυς ("platys", flat) and πους ("pus", foot), meaning "flat foot" and was originally given to it as a Linnaean genus name, but it was discovered to already belong to the wood-boring ambrosia beetle (genus Platypus).

There is no universally agreed upon plural of platypus. Scientists generally use platypuses, platypoda, or simply platypus. Colloquially, platypi is also used for the plural, although this is spurious pseudo-Latin.

Australian Aborigines call the platypus by many names including mallangong, boondaburra, and tambreet. Early British settlers called it by many names as well, such as watermole, duckbill, and duckmole. The name platypus is often prefixed with the adjective "duck-billed" to form duck-billed platypus, despite there being only one species of platypus.

Physical description

The platypus's metabolic rate is remarkably low compared to other mammals, with a body temperature averaging 32 °C (90 °F) rather than the 38 °C (100 °F) typical of placental mammals. The extent to which this is a characteristic of monotremes, as opposed to an adaptation on the part of the small number of surviving species to harsh environmental conditions, is uncertain.

The body and the broad, flat tail of the platypus are covered with brown fur that traps a layer of insulating air to keep the animal warm. Like the Tasmanian Devil, the platypus uses the tail for fat storage. It has webbed feet and a large, rubbery snout that are more reminiscent of a duck's features than those of any known mammal. Unlike a bird's beak, however, the snout does not open — it is a sensory organ. The mouth is located underneath it.

Weight varies considerably between less than 1 kg (2.2 lb) to more than 2 kg (4.5 lb); its body length ranges from 30–40 cm (11-16 inches), and its tail length from 10–15 cm (4-6 inches) for males and 8–13 cm (3-5 inches) for females. Males are around a third larger than females. There is substantial variation in average size from one region to another, though oddly this pattern does not seem to follow any particular climatic rule.

The Australian 20 cent coin features a platypus
The Australian 20 cent coin features a platypus

Modern platypus young have tribosphenic (three-cusped) molars, which are one of the hallmarks of mammals; adults are toothless. The platypus jaw is constructed somewhat differently from that of other mammals, and the jaw opening muscle is different. As in all true mammals, the tiny bones that conduct sound in the middle ear are fully incorporated into the skull, rather than lying in the jaw as in cynodonts and other pre-mammalian synapsids. However, the external opening of the ear still lies at the base of the jaw. The platypus has extra bones in the shoulder girdle, including an interclavicle, which is not found in other mammals. It also has a reptile-like gait, with legs that are on the sides of rather than underneath the body. The platypus manoeuvres with its flat tail, which allows the platypus to dive quickly and stablise itself.


The male platypus has venomous ankle spurs, used in vicious territorial battles and fights over mates. The poison is not normally lethal to humans but produces excruciating pain and swelling that lasts for several months. The pain is so excruciating that the victim is rendered almost helpless. The venom can be lethal to dingos, dogs and smaller domestic animals. Venom is produced in the crural glands of the male during the breeding season and is aggressively inflicted through a calcaneous spur on each hind limb. Females, like echidnas, have rudimentary spur buds which do not develop and do not have functional crural glands.

Calcaneous spur
Calcaneous spur

Because the venom appears to have a different function from venoms produced by non-mammalian species, it may contain peptides or molecules whose principal effects are non-life threatening but nevertheless may seriously impair the victim. That this could be the case is evident from the symptoms of platypus envenomation.

In humans the most remarkable symptom is immediate and excruciating pain. Edema rapidly develops around the wound and gradually spreads throughout the affected limb. Information obtained from case histories and anecdotal evidence indicates that the pain develops into a long-lasting hyperalgesia that persists for days or even months.

Electrolocation in the platypus

In the platypus, electroreceptors are located in rostro-caudal rows in the skin of the bill, while mechanoreceptors are uniformly distributed across the bill. The electrosensory area of the cerebral cortex is contained within the tactile somatosensory area, and some cortical cells receive input from both electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors, suggesting a close association between the tactile and electric senses. The platypus can determine the direction of an electric source, perhaps by comparing differences in signal strength across the sheet of electroreceptors. This would explain the animal's characteristic side-to-side motion of its head while hunting. The cortical convergence of electrosensory and tactile inputs suggests a mechanism for determining the distance of prey items which, when they move, emit both electrical signals and mechanical pressure pulses, which would also allow for computation of distance from the difference in time of arrival of the two signals.

The platypus feeds by digging in the bottom of streams with the bill. The electroreceptors could also be used to distinguish animate and inanimate objects in this situation (in which the mechanoreceptors would be continuously stimulated). Much of this is speculation, and there is still much to be learned about electroreception in the platypus and its fellow monotreme, the echidna.

Ecology and behaviour

The platypus is very hard to spot even on the surface of a river — and they tend to dive back in promptly.
The platypus is very hard to spot even on the surface of a river — and they tend to dive back in promptly.

The platypus is nocturnal and semi-aquatic, inhabiting small streams and rivers over an extensive range from the cold highlands of Tasmania and the Australian Alps to the tropical rainforests of coastal Queensland as far north as the base of the Cape York Peninsula. Inland, its distribution is not well known: it is extinct in South Australia (bar an introduced population on Kangaroo Island) and is no longer found in the main part of the Murray-Darling Basin, probably because of the declining water quality brought about by extensive land clearing and irrigation schemes. Along the coastal river systems, its distribution is unpredictable; it appears to be absent from some relatively healthy rivers, and yet maintains a presence in others that are quite degraded (the lower Maribyrnong, for example).

The species is endothermic, maintaining its low body temperature (32 °C) (90 °F), even while foraging for hours in water below 5 °C (41 °F). Its major habitat requirements include both riverine and riparian features which maintain a supply of benthic prey species and consolidated banks into which resting and nesting burrows can be excavated.

The platypus is an excellent swimmer and spends much of its time in the water foraging for food. When swimming they are distinguished from other Australian mammals by the absence of visible ears. It keeps its eyes tightly shut when swimming, relying completely on its other senses. All four feet of the platypus are webbed. When it swims, it propels itself by paddling with the front two feet. The tail and hind feet assist in steering but not propulsion.

It may be observed, that when the platypus dives, it sends up a bubble of air in approximately 60 seconds, and again, 60 seconds later, it sends up another bubble of air, and 60 seconds after that, it surfaces, lies spread-eagled on the top of the water, and chews its food. Then it dives again.

The platypus is a carnivore. It feeds on annelid worms and insect larvae, freshwater shrimps, and yabbies (freshwater crayfish) that it digs out of the riverbed with its snout or catches while swimming. Its bill is very sensitive, allowing it to hunt its food without using sight. The platypus needs to eat at least a quarter of its own weight every day. This requires the platypus to spend about 10 hours each day looking for food. When not in the water, the platypus retires to a short, straight burrow of oval cross-section, nearly always in the riverbank not far above water level, and often hidden under a protective tangle of roots.

It is one of the few mammals known to have a sense of electroception: it locates its prey in part by detecting their body electricity. Its electroception is the most sensitive of any mammal. This is discussed in more detail above.


The male platypus reproductive structure is much like that of other mammals. One exception is that their testicles are inside their body, near their kidneys. The female reproductive system, on the other hand, differs from other placental mammals. Their paired ovaries resemble those of birds and reptiles. Although the platypus has two separate ovaries, only the left one is functional. The other is primitive and underdeveloped and does not produce eggs.

The platypus’s behaviour before mating is complex but relatively undocumented. The breeding season is in the late winter to early spring, which in Australia is August to November. A male will mate with any number of females during this time because the platypus does not form life-long mates. Few platypuses have been seen mating, but courtship has been recorded to involve the male chasing and circling the female and biting her tail. Platypus are usually solitary animals, but during courtship, bodily contact between the pair is increased. During mating, the male curls his tail beneath the female, and lays his chest on the female’s back. There have been about five different recorded courtship methods. The first involves the male resting on the water, and the female swimming over to him and resting her muzzle on his. The second included the female swimming to the male and rubbing his side. The third recorded the female swimming beneath the male upside down, while rubbing his abdomen. The fourth documented the female swimming underneath the male and surfacing behind him. Finally, the fifth recorded instance included the female and male circling one another in tight circles.

The species exhibits a single breeding season, with mating occurring in late winter or spring and young first emerging into the water after three to four months of nurture by the lactating females in the nesting burrows. Historical observation, mark and recapture studies and preliminary investigations of population genetics indicate the possibility of resident and transient members of populations and suggest a polygynous mating system.

Outside the mating season, platypuses live in simple ground burrows whose entrances are about 30cm (one foot) above the water level. After mating the female constructs a deeper, more elaborate burrow up to 20 m long and blocked with plugs at intervals as a safeguard against rising waters. The male takes no part in caring for its young, and retreats to its yearlong burrow. The female softens the ground in the burrow with dead, folded, wet leaves and she fills the nest at the end of the tunnel with fallen leaves and reeds for bedding material. This material is dragged to the nest by tucking it underneath her curled tail.

Platypuses lay small, leathery eggs similar to those of reptiles, which are slightly rounder than bird eggs. Females usually lay two eggs at a time, but sometimes they lay one egg or three, which are about 11 mm (7/16 inch) in diameter. After laying her eggs, the female curls around them. The incubation period is separated into three parts. In the first, the embryo has no functional organs and relies on the yolk sac for respiration. During the second, the fingers and toes appear, and in the last, the egg tooth appears. When the eggs hatch after an incubation period of roughly ten days, the small hairless young cling to the mother.

The newly hatched platypuses are vulnerable, blind, and nude, and are fed by the mother's milk. Although she does not have nipples, the milk is released through pores in her abdomen. There are grooves on her abdomen that form pools of milk, allowing the young platypuses to lap up the milk. After the eggs hatch, the mother leaves the burrow only for short periods of time to feed and wet her fur. When the mother leaves her young, she plugs the entrance with soil to protect her offspring. The offspring are suckled for three to four months after they have hatched. They leave the burrow when they are seventeen weeks old.

The platypus in mammalian evolution

The platypus and other monotremes were very poorly understood for many years, and to this day some of the 19th century myths that grew up around them endure, for example, that the monotremes are "inferior" or quasi-reptilian, and that they are the distant ancestor of the "superior" placental mammals. It is now known that modern monotremes are the survivors of an early branching of the mammal tree; a later branching is thought to have led to the marsupial and placental groups.

The oldest fossils of monotremes ( Teinolophos and Steropodon) are closely related to the modern platypus. The Steropodon fossil is composed of an opalised lower jawbone with three molar teeth, and was discovered in New South Wales, Australia. The fossil is thought to be about 110 million years old, which means that the platypus-like animal was alive during the Cretaceous period, around the time of the dinosaurs. It is the oldest mammal fossil found in Australia so far.

Another fossil relative of the platypus has been found in Argentina, indicating that monotremes may have reached South America from Australia while the two continents were joined via Antarctica.

In summary, the platypus is one of the closest relatives of ancestral mammals, but not itself a link in the chain of mammalian evolution. The oldest fossil found of the present-day platypus dates back to about 100,000 years ago, the Quaternary period. It is a branch quite separate from any other known.

Fossil evidence has showed that the platypus ancestors were alive during the Cretaceous period, but it is not known exactly how the platypus has come to the creature it is today. Fossil evidence also shows that monotremes existed during the Mesozoic Era (which includes the Cretaceous period, as well as the Triassic and Jurassic eras).

There are two theories to explain how the platypus has evolved into what it is today. The first(theory B) shows that relatives of monotremes formed their own evolutionary branch that was completely different from development of both marsupials and placentals. This change is thought to have occured 135 million years go, the beginning of the Cretaceous period. The marsupials and the placentals divided at some point 135-65 million years ago.

The Second (theory A) was proposed by Gregory ( 1947) and was not popular until the 1970s. He said that between 135-65 million years ago, the placentals and marsupials seperated to their own way then later the monotremes and the marsupials went their own way.

Evidence for this theory is that between monotremes and marsupials their reproductive system is extremely similar. The embryos of both have some stage of encased shells in the gestation period. The only difference is that monotremes have the encased shells throughout the entire gestation period, whereas marsupials only have the encased shells for about two thirds of the gestation period.

In 2004, researchers at the Australian National University discovered the platypus has ten sex chromosomes, compared to two (XY) found in most other mammals. The chromosome system features characteristics found in mammals, but also those found in the WZ system of birds. This news has further pronounced the individuality of platypuses amongst the animal kingdom, and a target for further research into evolutionary links between mammals, birds and reptiles. [1]

Conservation status

The platypus occupies much the same general distribution as it did prior to European occupation of Australia, except for its loss from the state of South Australia. However, local changes and fragmentation of distribution due to human modification of its habitat are documented. The species currently inhabits eastern Australia from around Cooktown in the north to Tasmania in the south. Although not found in the west-flowing rivers of northern Queensland, it inhabits the upper reaches of rivers flowing to the west and north of the dividing ranges in the south of the state and in New South Wales and Victoria. Its current and historical abundance, however, is less well known and it has probably declined in numbers, although still being considered as common over most of its current range. The species was extensively hunted for its fur until around the turn of the 20th century. The platypus does not appear to be in immediate danger of extinction. It is variously classified as secure but faces future threat or common but vulnerable, mainly because the species is sensitive to water pollution. It is a protected species within Australia.

Much of the world was introduced to the platypus in 1939 when National Geographic magazine published an article on the platypus and the efforts to study and raise it in captivity. This is a very difficult task, and only a few young have been successfully raised since — notably at Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria.

The leading figure in these efforts was David Fleay who established a platypussary — a simulated stream in a tank — at the Healesville Sanctuary and had a successful breeding in 1943. Healesville repeated its successes in 1998 and in 2000 with a similar stream tank. Taronga Zoo in Sydney had success in 2003 with twins being bred. [2] (In 1972, David Fleay also found a dead baby about 50 days old, presumably bred, at his wildlife park at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast, Queensland. [3])


  • Syd the Platypus was one of the three mascots chosen for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The other mascots were the Echidna and the Kookaburra.
  • Hexley the Platypus is the mascot for Apple Computer's BSD-based Darwin operating system.

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