This is an extract from Kirsty Murray’s book Topsy Turvy World (National Library of Australia, 2012). Our thanks to Kirsty and the National Library of Australia for allowing us to use this extract.
‘It was impossible not to entertain some distant doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal.’
George Shaw, British zoologist, 1800
George Shaw opened the latest parcel to arrive from New Holland and his eyes grew wide. It was from the governor of New South Wales, John Hunter, but surely someone was trying to trick him. What lay in the folds of paper and cloth had to be a hoax.
Shaw smoothed out the pages of the letter and stared at the strange sketch and the leathery skin that had been sent to him. Governor Hunter claimed to have seen an Aboriginal guide kill the animal with a spear. Shaw shook his head. He had read Hunter’s journal about Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, as well as his book The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay,so he knew that John Hunter had discovered many strange new animals, but this latest New World creature was simply too bizarre to believe. As a naturalist, Shaw had studied some very peculiar creatures, indeed, but he had never seen anything like the Ornithorhyncus paradoxus. It certainly was a paradox. Was it a beast or a bird?
Shaw was used to being sent fanciful animals that Chinese taxidermists had stitched together. Fish and monkeys were cut up and sewn into one piece, then sold to simple-minded sailors who thought they were mermaids. Shaw studied the skin of this new animal but could see no evidence of stitching, even when he got out his scissors and had a good prod at all the joints. The beast had a broad flat tail and webbed feet. It looked as if the beak of a duck had been grafted onto the head of a four-legged beast. The duckbill was smoothly joined to the pelt. How on earth had they done it? Shaw stared in disbelief and turned back to John Hunter’s notes. Maybe such a creature really did exist.
From Ancient Times to the Next Big Thing
Once the Europeans accepted that such a strange creature really did exist, platypuses became all the rage back in England. Everyone wanted to know more about them. Thousands of platypuses were caught and killed. Rugs were made from their thick fur, and other parts of the animal were pickled in spirits and displayed as curiosities. European naturalists were baffled. The platypus had venom in spurs on its feet, a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail and feet like an otter. Was it a mammal that gave birth to live babies or did it lay eggs like a bird or a reptile? It took nearly 100 years for European scientists to solve the mystery and prove that the platypus really did lay eggs.
Platypuses are members of a small club of egg-laying mammals called monotremes. The only other monotremesare the echidnas. Although the Europeans thought that the platypus was something new, its ancestors go back 110 million years to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fossils belonging to an ancient platypus have been found in Argentina and date back 60 million years to when Australia and South America were still joined as part of the ancient southern landmass Gondwana.
According to one Aboriginal legend, when a young duck strayed from her sheltered river pond and wandered downstream, she met a lonely water rat. The water rat threatened her with his spear and forced her to mate with him. When the duck’s babies were hatched, they had their mother’s duckbill but they also had brown fur instead of feathers and four webbed feet. And on each of the male’s hind legs was a sharp spike, just like the spear of his father, the water rat. The duck’s babies were the very first platypuses.
What the Europeans Needed to Learn
Platypuses spend half their day swimming and diving in search of food and the rest of their time resting in their burrows. They dig their homes in the banks of creeks, rivers and dams in eastern Australia, between Queensland and Tasmania. The entrance to the burrow is just above water level and often well hidden by plant roots. Each platypus has a number of burrows within their home range to make sure they always have a safe refuge. They are very solitary animals and it is rare that two adults will share a burrow. The only exception is nesting burrows that are built to house a mother and her babies.
Platypuses hunt in water and feed mostly at night. Using their broad tails, they dive in search of food but regularly surface to breathe. Their tail serves as a rudder to stir the water while swimming. The tail also stores fat for when food is scarce. Platypuses’ bodies are covered with two layers of waterproof brown fur: an inner layer made up of fine hair that traps air and keeps the animal warm, and an outer layer of longer flat hair.
Platypuses hunt under water with their eyes and ears closed, but they can catch fast-moving prey such as shrimps because their bills have special sensors called electro-receptors. The electro-receptors can feel tiny flickers of movement in the water around the platypus.
Every platypus has to eat about one-third of its body weight every night just to survive. They store their food in cheek pouches until they come to the surface. As adult platypuses don’t have any teeth, they push the food back into their mouths and crush it between their jaws. Very young platypuses do have teeth, but they fall out soon after the young platypus first enters the water.
Adult male platypuses have a pointed spur above the heel of each hind leg. The spurs look like fangs and contain poison which can injure anyone who annoys them. Although platypus venom can kill other animals, it is not life threatening to a healthy human. A platypus sting, however, can be very painful. Platypuses make a low growling sound when angry and can be dangerous, so if you do meet one while wading in a river or creek, leave it alone.
The female platypus lays up to three eggs in late winter or spring. She keeps them warmly held between her lower belly and curled-up tail for about 10 days while she rests in an underground nest lined with soft leaves. She does not have nipples like a mammal. Instead, baby platypuses slurp up milk from two patches on their mother’s belly. The young platypuses stay in the burrow with their mother for about six weeks until they are fully covered with fur. Their mother looks after them until they are ready to enter the water at about four months of age.
Common name: platypus
Scientific name: Ornithorhynchus anatinus
Some historical names: water mole, duckbill, duckmole
Some Indigenous names: mallangong, tambreet, boonaburra, baarlijan, gayadar, theen-who-ween
Weight and size: up to 2.4 kg; males up to 55 cm in total length; females up to 47 cm
Habits: solitary (this means the animal lives alone); nocturnal; can spend up to a minute under water catching food before coming to the surface to eat it
Habitat: lives in freshwater lakes, rivers and larger streams
Diet: insects, worms, small fishes and frogs
Reproduction: The female has a nest burrow with a chamber lined with water weed. She lays two eggs in late winter or spring and curls around them to incubate them for about 10 days. After they hatch, the baby platypuses suck milk from two patches on their mother’s belly for up to five months. She leaves them in the burrow when she hunts.
Life span in the wild: under 10 years