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What Is a Platypus?

Ornithorhynchus anatinus is a unique semi-aquatic mammal native to Australia and the island of Tasmania.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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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.

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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.

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GenevaMech
Post 4

@ 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.

Alchemy
Post 3

@ 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.

PelesTears
Post 2

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.

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