Platypuses are full of mystery

platypus swimming

Platypuses can be found in creeks in eastern Australia and Tasmania. With duck bills, webbed feet and venomous spikes, platypuses are one of the weirdest animals you’ll ever be lucky enough to see.

Klaus/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The platypus is one of the oddest animals you’ll ever see. Aboriginal Australian legend says that the platypus was born after a female duck mated with a water-rat. British naturalist George Shaw, who in 1799 was the first person to officially describe the animal for science, originally thought the dead specimen he’d been sent was a hoax. The weirdness goes beyond your first glance at their duck bills and webbed feet: These are milk-producing mammals that lay eggs. And the males have venomous spurs on their hind legs.

You can find platypus specimens in lots of natural history museums. If you want to see a live platypus, though, you have to go to Australia. That’s not just because the animals are native to eastern Australia and Tasmania. There are no captive platypuses outside of Australia, and it’s now illegal to move them out of the country. In the early to mid-20th century, the Bronx Zoo in New York City tried keeping platypuses on display, but the animals died, and none ever mated. Even in Australia, the animals have only been successfully bred (with the offspring reaching maturity) twice.

Baby platypuses already have duckbills and webbed feet. LandLearn NSW/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Platypuses have also proven elusive in the wild. Though they’re widely distributed in their range and in high numbers , they spend most of their time in their burrows or under the water. A filmmaker in Tasmania spent seven years trying to film the animals and only recently lucked out with 30 seconds of good footage when one of the animals ambled through his filming site. “Filming [a] platypus is one of the hardest tasks ever,” Max Moller told ABC .

And this begins to explain part of the conversation I had last week with Camilla Whittington, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney who has studied platypus venom. I asked her why studying the animals’ venom was difficult. With snakes, it’s easy to milk the animals and get a lot of venom to study. But platypuses are far more difficult. Only the males are venomous, Whittington notes, they only make venom during the breeding season, and they don’t make a lot of it. There’s no way to milk a platypus for venom. So to study the stuff, Whittington and her colleagues took a genetic approach. They harvested a venom gland from a platypus that had been struck by a car. Then they figured out which genes were switched on to determine the ones responsible for making venom proteins.

Platypuses are elusive in the wild. A filmmaker recently captured rare footage of a platypus walking between creeks in Tasmania.Black Devil Productions

But what are the platypuses using venom for? Whittington says that scientists don’t yet know. The males might be using it in fights over territory or access to females, which would explain why only males have venom and only during breeding season. And someone once found in a net two males that had been fighting, one with temporary paralysis. Disabling a competitor would be a big advantage, Whittington says. But no one knows for sure because platypuses are so difficult to study in the wild. Also unknown is how a platypus survives getting injected with a venom that can kill dogs and other animals.

There are so many platypus questions still unanswered. But if you’ve ever wondered whether it’s better to be spiked or bitten by a platypus, go with the bite. Whittington says that the platypus’s bill feels rubbery and doesn’t hurt. Getting spiked, though, will leave you with pain throughout your body that lasts for weeks and can’t be alleviated even with opioids. Ouch!

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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