Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Platypus: Nature’s "Swiss Army Knife"

Link - article by Rebecca Leib and Avi Abrams

Be Different! and Stay Different - for 166 million years!
This weirdest mammal has webbed feet, lays eggs and sweats milk

If you were to visit eastern Australia and/or Tasmania, you would find a rare and bizarre creature: the Platypus. From its birth, this little fella is entirely unique; the platypus is amongst the five extant species of monotremes - mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to young ones. Though a number of species have been found on the record (the fossil record!), the platypus is the only living member of its family, ornithorhynchidae, and genus, ornithorhynchus.

(photo manipulation via, original photo: Dave Watts, BBC)

(image credit: Healesville Sanctuary, via)

"The platypus is a very ancient offshoot of the mammal tree, so it was 166 million years ago that we last shared a common ancestor with platypuses... and that puts them somewhere between mammals and reptiles, because they still maintain quite a lot of reptilian characteristics that we’ve lost; for instance, they still lay eggs." - the platypus genome code was recently cracked by the Comparative Genomics Group at the Australian National University (more info)

(Platypus Skeleton! - photo by Katrina Mengchen Zhang)

(image credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

Half-Beaver, Half-Duck, Half-Otter, Half-... sorry, we're out of "half"s

More bizarre than its pedigree, is the platty’s looks. This creature is like a lot of animals and tools wrapped all-in-one, in a furry (and waterproof) exterior:

(image credit: National Geographic, more info)

The platypus has a duckbill, a beaver tail and small otter feet. When on land, this little guy turns back the webs on its little otter front feet, revealing broad nails that help it walk. When in the water, a platypus swims forward with these same front feet. It uses its fat-filled tail as a rudder. The back feet of the platypus are used for it to brake and steer, like my first bike.

(top image credit: Dave Watts, BBC)

Fear the Platypus!

What's more, the platypus is also highly venomous!. The male platypus can deliver a poison through a fancy spur on its back foot. Though the female is also born with the ankle-spur (a classy edition to any fall collection), she does not carry or spurt venom. The male’s highly potent venom is made from a cocktail of proteins, three of which are unique to the platypus. Don’t worry, ladies and gents: this venom won’t kill humans, though it is powerful enough to kill smaller animals - even dogs. Though we can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re safe from death, a platypus’ poison will be excruciating to endure, and can also leave a victim incapacitated.

(left image credit: Katherine A. Smith, bottom right image via)

Platypus inspires art of all sizes:

(image credit: Piccolina Photography)

(image credit: Jens Quade)

Close your eyes, and navigate by electrolocation

Platypuses are also known for a curious affectation called electrolocation. Monotremes are the only mammals that have this talent. Electorlocation is the ability to locate one’s prey using electric fields generated through muscular contractions. The platypus’ electroreception is the most sensitive of any monotreme. Why? Because it doesn’t use sight or smell to hunt. In fact, when the platypus swims, it closes its eyes, ears and nose:

(original unknown)

Instead of using these seemingly crucial senses, a platypus will swim to the bottom of a stream, dig around up in there, and lets its electroreceptors do some super sweet shock therapy on the odd fly, shrimp, worm or insect larvae. Yum.

I am the Walru... er, Platypus

And don’t get me wrong; a platypus knows how to have a good time. It must eat at least one quarter of its body weight each day, which means twelvish hours of huntin’, eatin’ and electrolocatin.’ When they aren’t foraging, a platypus makes sweet sweet love in the water so that the female’s one functional ovary can make some babies. When the babies have hatched in the platypus’ burrow, the female oozes milk for the little hairless babies to lick off. Literally.

(Platypus Nestling, Four Weeks - photo by Mickey)

Though platypuses (or, is it platypi?) have few natural predators, their encounter with larger and faster carnivores (such as a wild cat, a crocodile, even a snake) probably won’t lead to a second date, but a funeral.

(image credit: Alex Fleisig)

And we want the platypus to live a long time - their life span in the wild is eleven years, while in captivity some have often lived to see their sweet sixteen. Though the platypus isn’t under immediate threat, let’s keep this fascinating little species alive and well - so we can marvel at its awesomeness for generations to come!

(bottom right: "The Vitruvian Platypus", art by WeaselsHaveLasers)




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