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Platypus

    ''This article is about the monotreme mammal For the genus ''Platypus'' see ambrosia beetle'' Also ''Platypus'' is the name for a side project featuring John Myung from Dream Theater Derek Sherinian former Dream Theater member Ty Tabor from King's X and Rod Morgenstein

    The Platypus or Mallangong (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a small semi-aquatic mammal endemic to the eastern part of Australia and one of the four extant monotremes the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young (the other three are echidnas) It is the sole representative of its family (Ornithorhynchidae) and genus (Ornithorhynchus) though a number of fossilised relatives have been found some of them also in the Ornithorhynchus genus
    The scientific name Ornithorhynchus literally means 'bird nose' in Greek and anatinus means 'duck' The common name means 'flat foot' and was originally given to it as a Linnaean genus name but it was discovered to already belong to the wood-boring ambrosia beetle

    Physiology and Anatomy

    The physiology of the Platypus is unique The metabolic rate of the animal is remarkably low compared to other mammals with a body temperature averaging 32°C (90°F) rather than the 38°C (1004°F) typical of placental mammals The extent to which this is a characteristic of monotremes as opposed to an adaptation on the part of the small number of surviving species to harsh environmental conditions is uncertain
    The body and the broad flat tail of the Platypus are covered with brown fur It has webbed feet and a large rubbery snout that are more reminiscent of a duck than any other known mammal This has led to it being known as the "Duck-billed Platypus" Early British settlers called it the 'Water Mole'
    Size varies considerably between less than a kilogram (two pound) and over two kilograms (just under four and on half pounds); with body length ranging from 30 to 40 cm (nearly 1' to 1'3" and tail length from 10 to 15 cm (4" to 6") for males and 8 to 13 cm (3" to 5") for females Males are around one-third larger than females There is substantial variation in average size from one region to another though oddly this pattern does not seem to follow any particular climatic rule
    Modern Platypus young have tribosphenic 'three-cusped' molar which are one of the hallmarks of mammals; adults are toothless The Platypus jaw is constructed somewhat differently from that of other mammals and the jaw opening muscle is different As in all true mammals the tiny bones that conduct sound to the inner ear are fully incorporated into the skull rather than lying in the jaw as in cynodonts and other pre-mammalian synapsids However the external opening of the ear still lies at the base of the jaw The Platypus has extra bones in the shoulder girdle including an interclavicle which is not found in other mammals It also has a reptile-like gait with legs that are on the sides of rather than underneath the body
    The male Platypus has venomous ankle spurs used in vicious territorial battles and fights over mates The poison is not lethal to humans but produces excruciating pain and swelling that may last for several months The venom can be lethal to dogs and smaller domestic animals

    Platypus Venom

    Venom is produced in the crural glands of the male during the breeding season and is aggressively inflicted through a calcaneous spur on each hindlimb Because the venom appears to have a different function from venoms produced by nonmammalian species it may contain peptides or molecules whose principal effects are non-life threatening but nevertheless may seriously impair the victim That this could be the case is evident from the symptoms of platypus envenomation
    In the human the most remarkable symptom is an immediate and excruciating pain Edema rapidly develops around the wound and gradually spreads throughout the affected limb Information obtained from case histories and anecdotal evidence indicates that the pain develops into a long-lasting hyperalgesia that persists for days or even months

    Ecology and behaviour

    The Platypus is nocturnal and semi-aquatic inhabiting small streams and rivers over an extensive range from the cold highlands of Tasmania and the Australian Alps to the tropical rainforests of coastal Queensland as far north as the base of the Cape Peninsula] Inland its distribution is not well known: it is extinct in South Australia (bar an introduced population on Kangaroo Island) and is no longer found in the main part of the Murray-Darling Basin probably because of the declining water quality brought about by extensive land clearing and irrigation schemes Along the coastal river systems its distribution is unpredictable; it appears to be absent from some relatively healthy rivers and yet maintains a presence in others that are quite degraded (the lower Maribyrnong for example)
    The Platypus is an excellent swimmer and spends much of its time in the water It keeps its eyes tightly shut when swimming relying completely on its other senses All four feet of the Platypus are webbed When it swims it propels itself by paddling with the front two feet The tail and hind feet assist in steering but not propulsion
    lives near water and feeds on a variety of aquatic animals and worms
    The Platypus is a carnivore It feeds on worms and insect larvae freshwater shrimps and yabbies (freshwater crayfish) that it digs out of the river bed with its snout or catches while swimming Its bill is very sensitive allowing it to hunt its food without using sight It is one of the few mammals known to have a sense of electroception: it locates its prey in part by detecting their body electricity Its electroception is the most sensitive of any mammal This is discussed in more detail below
    When not in the water the Platypus retires to a short straight burrow of oval cross-section nearly always in the riverbank not far above water level and often hidden under a protective tangle of roots For breeding the female digs much larger and more elaborate burrows up to 20 m long and blocked with plugs at intervals She fills the nest at the end of the tunnel with reeds for bedding material
    As a monotreme the Platypus does not give birth to live young but instead lays eggs in its nest The eggs are retained in the body for some time before they are laid and cared for actively by the parent When the eggs hatch after an incubation period of roughly ten days the small hairless babies cling to the mother Like other mammals the mother produces milk for the young The Platypus does not have nipples but excretes the milk through pores in her skin The young suckle milk off the mother's belly while she lies on her back

    Electrolocation in the platypus

    In the platypus electroreceptors are located in rostro-caudal rows in skin of the bill while mechanoreceptors are uniformly distributed across the bill The electrosensory area of the cerebral cortex is contained within the tactile somatosensory area and some cortical cells receive input from both electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors suggesting a close association between the tactile and electric senses Platypus can determine the direction of an electric source perhaps by comparing differences in signal strength across the sheet of electroreceptors as the animal characteristically moves its head from side to side while hunting The cortical convergence of electrosensory and tactile inputs suggests a mechanism for determining the distance of prey items which when they move emit both electrical signals and mechanical pressure pulses Distance could be computed from the difference in time of arrival of the two signals Much of the platypus' feeding is done by digging in the bottom of streams with the bill Perhaps the electroreceptors could also be used to distinguish animate and inanimate objects in this situation where the mechanoreceptors would be continuously stimulated Much of this is speculation and there is still much to be learned about electroreception in the platypus and its fellow monotreme the echidna

    Field biology of the platypus

    The field biology of the platypus was first studied by a number of expatriate biologists who visited the Australian colonies to collect specimens in the 1800s Their work was followed in the early to mid-1900s by a group of resident natural historians and later by an increasing number of academic biologists All of these workers contributed significantly to the current understanding of the field biology of this unique Australian species The platypus occupies much the same general distribution as it did prior to European occupation of Australia except for its loss from the state of South Australia However local changes and fragmentation of distribution due to human modification of its habitat are documented The species currently inhabits eastern Australia from around Cooktown in the north to Tasmania in the south Although not found in the west-flowing rivers of northern Queensland it inhabits the upper reaches of rivers flowing to the west and north of the dividing ranges in the south of the state and in New South Wales and Victoria Its current and historical abundance however is less well known and it has probably declined in numbers although still being considered as common over most of its current range The species was extensively hunted for its fur until around this turn of this century The platypus is mostly nocturnal in its foraging activities being predominantly an opportunistic carnivore of benthic invertebrates The species is endothermic maintaining its low body temperature (32°C) even while foraging for hours in water below 5°C Its major habitat requirements include both riverine and riparian features which maintain a supply of benthic prey species and consolidated banks into which resting and nesting burrows can be excavated The species exhibits a single breeding season with mating occurring in late Winter or Spring and young first emerging into the water after 3-4 months of nurture by the lactating females in the nesting burrows Natural history observations mark and recapture studies and preliminary investigations of population genetics indicate the possibility of resident and transient members of populations and suggest a polygynous mating system Recent field studies have largely confirmed and extended the work of the early biologists and natural historians

    Scientific history

    When the Platypus was first discovered by Europeans in the late 1700s a pelt was sent back to Britain for examination by the scientific community The British scientists were at first convinced that the seemingly odd collection of physical attributes must be a hoax produced by some Asian taxidermist
    Much of the world was introduced to the Platypus in 1939 when National Geographic magazine published an article on the Platypus and the efforts to study and raise it in captivity This is a very difficult task and only a few young have been successfully raised since — notably at Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria
    Seeing a Platypus in the wild is more a matter of luck and of patience than of difficulty They tend to dislike populated areas spend almost all all time underground or under water and are primarily nocturnal However they are not especially uncommon and in suitable areas most keen anglers or birdwatchers see a Platypus feeding quietly along a riverbank every year or two
    The Platypus does not appear to be in immediate danger of extinction It is variously classified as secure but faces future threat or common but vulnerable mainly because the species is sensitive to water pollution

    The Platypus in mammalian evolution

    The Platypus and other monotremes were very poorly understood for many years and to this day some of the 19th century myths that grew up around them endure particularly in the northern hemisphere It is still sometimes thought for example that the monotremes are 'inferior' or quasi-reptilian and that they are the distant ancestor of the 'superior' placental mammals It is now known that modern monotremes are the survivors of an early branching of the mammal tree; a later branching is thought to have led to the marsupial and placental groups The oldest fossils of monotremes (Teinolophos and Steropodon) are closely related to the modern Platypus In summary the Platypus is one of the closest relatives of ancestral mammals but not itself a link in the chain of mammalian evolution It is a branch quite separate from any other known one

    Sex Chromosomes

    In 2004 researchers at the Australian National University discovered the platypus has ten sex chromosomes compared to two (XY) found in most other mammals The chromosome system features characteristics found in mammals but also those found in the WZ system of birds This news has further pronounced the individuality of platypuses amongst the animal kingdom and a target for further research into evolutionary links between mammals birds and reptiles

    See also

    • Australian fauna
    • Australian mammals
    • Mammal
    • Monotreme

    References and Links