Platypus information

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Name.

The platypus's scientific name, ornithorhynchus anatinus, is derived from a combination of the Greek words for "bird-snout" and "duck-like". The word platypus also comes from the Greek for "flat" and "foot". The term "duck-billed" often prefixes platypus but since there is no other type this term is redundant. There is no agreed term for the plural of platypus, with platypus, platypoda and platypuses all being used.

Where.

The platypus is regarded as locally common throughout its range along the east coast of Australia, from north-east Queensland through to south-west Victoria and Tasmania. It is also found on King Island and on Kangaroo Island, where it was introduced. It is unique to Australia. It inhabits fresh water streams, ranging from Alpine creeks in Tasmania through to tropical lowland rivers. Also found in lakes, reservoirs and farm dams. It prefers areas with steep, well vegetated banks in which to burrow. The burrow is normally shallow and rudimentary but breeding females will construct a more elaborate affair, sometimes up to 20 metres long.

Description

The platypus is a monotreme (monotremes have a single opening for urinating, defecating and for reproduction). It is one of only three types of egg laying mammal in the world, the others being the short-beaked and the long-beaked echidnas. It has a duck shaped bill, webbed feet, a beaver like tail and is covered in a dark brown insulation fur. The average length (including tail) varies from 40cm to 55cm (males are larger than females) and the average weight ranges from 1Kg to over 2Kg (and this does not follow a climatic pattern)The body temperature of a platypus (as well as the other monotremes) is 32 degrees C and they are endothermic. The male platypuses have a venomous spur on the inside of each hind claw, something it uses for defences. The poison from this is sufficient to kill a dingo or domestic dog and is said to be so excruciating to humans that "the victim is rendered almost helpless". This pain may last for several weeks.

When a platypus swims it does so with its eyes, ears and nostrils closed and so probably cannot sense the non-moving part of its environment. However, it can sense prey by means of electrolocation, the ability to detect the tiny electric impulses given off by animals when they move. The platypus disturbs the bottom of the stream bed with its bill and in doing so induces movement in prey. It has the most sensitive electrolocation ability of any mammal. It is nocturnal and crepuscular.

Diet

The platypus is a carnivore, surviving on worms, insect larvae, flies and small shrimps (yabbies) and other small water borne species. Once caught the prey is stored in cheek pouches and taken to the surface where it is ground between the animals' toothless jaws. It spends around 12 hours per day foraging for food and needs to consume at least one quarter of its body weight each day.

Reproduction

Breeding takes place in late Winter/early Spring, earlier in the north of the range. One to three eggs are laid (normally two) after two weeks, the female curling around them for incubation. Upon hatching the young are blind and hairless and are fed on milk secreted from the mothers skin Platypuses have no nipples), something that will continue for three to four months. During this period the mother will only leave the burrow for short periods and will stop-up the burrow while she is away. The young will leave the burrow after four months. The male plays no part in the raising of the young.

Conservation

The platypus is considered common throughout its range and the only area from where it has disappeared since European settlement is South Australia. However, it is vulnerable to habitat loss, pollution and from inadvertent capture in shrimp traps. The IUCN classifies the platypus as "near threatened" on its Red List, mainly because of the susceptibility to water pollution.

Currently (May '08) the population of Tasmanian platypuses is under threat from a fungal disease. The disease, which causes ulcers on the tail and back, has migrated from the mainland where platypuses have a natural immunity. It is killing about 35% of the population in affected areas and is spreading.

There has been very little success at captive breeding of platypuses.

Main sources for this information:

Platypus, Tom Grant, Australian Natural History Series.

Department of Primary Industries and Water (http://http://dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/WebPages/BHAN-53573T?open)

Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia, Menkhorst and Knight

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