I’m lucky enough to be heading to the Whitsundays Voices Festival a couple of weeks early. Why? For some sun and beaches, but also some forests and hiking…
I’m also hoping to see a small, furry critter I’ve adored from afar but never actually laid eyes on:
On a scale of one to weird…
On a scale of one to weird, platypuses score super-high. They’re venomous, lay eggs, make milk, breathe air and live in fresh water. How cool is that!?!?!
“It doesn’t get much weirder,” says Josh Griffiths, a senior ecologist with 10+ years’ experience working with platypuses.
“They’re the most unusual creature on the planet. There’s still so much we don’t know about them, so any time I go out or do research, I’m going to see something new.”
What do we already know about platypuses?
Well, we know platypuses are amazing.
Bill: Their super-sensitive bill can detect underwater electrical pulses made by tasty beetles, insect larvae and yabbies. This means platypuses hunt with their eyes, ears and nostrils closed.
Limbs: Their short limbs are webbed (great for paddling) and clawed (great for digging).
Spur: Males have venomous spurs on their ankles. “The venom causes excruciating pain and massive swelling in humans,” says Josh. Platypus venom is so odd, we’re hoping it can be used to treat diabetes.
Coat: Their thick waterproof fur is perfect for staying warm and dry.
Tail: Flat and wide like a paddle, their tail is great for swimming. It’s also filled with fat, for energy reserves.
Size: 1–3 kilograms. “Like a small rabbit,” says Josh, “but they’re a very strange shape, because they’re long and streamlined.” Think 40–50 cm from tip of tail to tip of bill.
Eggs: The female lays her eggs in a 25-30-metre-long burrow that she’s dug into the riverbank. “It’s quite an effort for a one-kilogram animal,” says Josh. “The eggs around about the size of a 5-cent piece when they’re laid.” After just ten days, the eggs hatch.
Jellybean babies: “When platypus hatch, they’re the size of a little pink jellybean,” says Josh. “They’re basically a mouth, with not much else. Mum stays with them almost constantly for the first few weeks.” During this time, she feeds her bean babies with milk.
Milk: A CSIRO team led by Janet Newman has found a curly protein in platypus milk is great at killing bacteria. “Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,” says Janet.
Where to see platypuses
Platypuses live across eastern and southern Australia. They’re mostly nocturnal, live alone, and are super-shy. “We don’t see them easily, so we don’t know whether they’re disappearing or not,” says Josh.
However, fingers crossed, they’re relatively easy to spot in the Eungella National Park, which is where I’ll be heading before the Whitsundays Voices Festival. Wish me luck!
Join the platypus party
Next time you go platypus-spotting, be a citizen scientist and record your success (or failure) on platypusSPOT.
“You can see where other people have seen platypus and try your luck in those hot spots,” says Josh. Even better, your information helps us learn more about where platypus live.
What you can do to help platypuses today
There are two big ways we can all help platypuses:
- Save water. “Every time we take a shower or turn on the tap, we’re using water from a platypus’ home,” says Josh.
- Pick up litter: “It’s easy for a platypus to get tangled rubber bands or hair ties or bits of string,” says Josh. Platypuses also drown in yabby traps.
Injured platypus? Who you gunna call?
If you find an injured or sick platypus, don’t pick it up. “You could get put in hospital for your trouble,” says Josh. Platypus venom isn’t fun! Instead, call your local wildlife rescue operation.
Did you know?
Platypuses are one of only five living species of egg-laying mammals, called monotremes. The other four are all echidna species. Monotremes only live in Australia and New Guinea.
This post is adapted from an article written by me that first appeared in CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine. (c) CSIRO
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