Introduction to an Iconic Mammal
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is an egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammal that lives in Tasmania and along the eastern coast of mainland Australia. It occupies a wide range of habitats from alpine streams and ponds that freeze in winter, to the tepid waters of tropical north Queensland. It uses electro-receptors in its rubbery bill to find food on the bottom of freshwater streams, lakes and ponds.
Males have venomous spurs, females secrete milk through their skin, and their young are born into burrows dug into earth banks. Some aspects of their skeletons are similar to reptiles. Platypuses are frequently observed in the sometimes rare streams, rivers and lakes of one of the driest continents on the planet, where they often spend about 12 hours a day searching for food.
The platypus is characterised by a soft, toothless rubbery bill, webbed feet, fur and a single external opening to the urinary, digestive and reproductive tracts. This iconic mammal was so weird that when specimens first reached Europe at the end of the 19th century they were considered fakes. Since that time platypuses have continued to fascinate scientists and the public alike. Although many people have never seen one in the wild (due to their secretive and often nocturnal habits), most Australians strongly support their conservation.
Platypus and echidnas are the only existing species of monotremes (egg laying mammals) on earth. All other mammals are in the subclass Theria and give birth to live young.
Platypus are readily identified by their streamlined body, webbed feet, broad tail and characteristic bill, which is rubbery and contains no true teeth. Since platypus dive repeatedly for food, they generally are only sighted when they briefly return to the surface to breathe. Then the top of their head, back and tail can be seen - like the tip of an iceberg, the rest remains submerged.
An adult platypus can be from 45 cm to 60 cm long, with females generally smaller than males. Average platypus size increases with latitude, with the platypuses in north Queensland generally being the smallest where males average about 1 kg. Tasmanian platypus are relatively huge, with some adult males weighing up to 3 kg.
Platypuses are usually a deep brown colour on the back and sides of the head, body and upper surfaces of the limbs. The underside is a golden colour or silky grey. They have two layers of fur - a dense waterproof outercoat and a grey woolly underfur to provide insulation. The fur on the broad flat tail is coarse and bristly. They have a smooth swimming action, together with a low body profile and no visible ears which makes them easily recognisable in the water. Since platypus legs extend out from the sides of their bodies, they walk with a reptilian waddle, rather than a straight-line gait.
Distribution and habitat
The platypus is widespread in the eastern states of Australia, in the streams and rivers predominantly east of the Great Dividing Range. In Tasmania, platypus are widely spread across the state and are common in the lakes of the Central Highlands as well as the rivers and streams of the south, south-west and north-west coasts. They also occur on King Island, the only Tasmanian offshore island known to have platypus.
Platypus are semi-aquatic and require access to freshwater habitats to forage, and earth banks to dig their burrows. Ideal platypus habitat includes rivers or streams with earth banks consolidated by the roots of native vegetation, abundant invertebrate prey, cobbled or gravel substrates, overhanging shady vegetation and a sequence of pools and riffles. However they can also occupy lakes and farm dams and even can be found in some streams moderately degraded by human activities.
Platypus spend around half their day resting in short, oval-shaped burrows of about 3 to 8 m long that they dig into earth banks around rivers, lakes or streams. They often have multiple burrows scattered along their home range and adults typically occupy a burrow alone, although different platypuses may use the same burrow on different days. Females also dig elaborate nesting burrows around 20 m long with multiple chambers and earth plugs which they share with their unweaned young.
Swimming and diving
Platypus use their webbed front feet for swimming. On land, the webbing, which extends beyond the long front claws, is folded back to enable the animal to walk and burrow. Platypus have powerful front legs and rely on them for the hard work of both paddling and digging. The webbing on the hind feet does not extend beyond the bases of the claws; the hind legs are used mainly for steering and to tread water while they chew food at the surface.
The tail acts as a rudder when swimming and also aids the animal when diving. It is also where the platypus stores much of its body fat. Biologists use the thickness of the tail to measure an individual's body condition. Although platypus are strong swimmers, they are not fast and prefer slow-flowing streams.
Platypus have small eyes but acute sight. They only open their eyes above water and are particularly good at detecting movement on the river bank. Their hearing is also acute, with a range of hearing similar to the frequencies that humans can detect, but with sensitivity to lower frequency sounds that we can't hear. Little is known about their sense of smell and taste. However males secrete a musky odour from a scent gland in the breeding season so it seems likely that they would have a reasonable sense of smell.
Underwater, platypus rely on touch and a special sixth sense called electro-reception. Monotremes are the only mammals to have developed electro-reception. Sharks and rays use electro-reception to detect prey and can pick up the tiny electrical fields produced by the muscular contraction of their prey. Underwater footage shows platypus swinging their heads from side to side to detect tiny changes in the electrical field generated by their prey and determine its location.
Behaviour and Diet
Platypus are solitary animals that only come together to mate, although several individuals may be found living in the same section of habitat. Generally they leave their burrows around dusk, forage all night and return around dawn but some animals can also be active in the early morning or evening.
Platypus forage for food for about 12 hours every day and can consume 13-28% of their own body weight in food a day. They dive for between 20-40 seconds during foraging, generally in shallow water less than about five metres deep, and often rest on the surface chewing for only 10 seconds between dives. They can perform about 75 dives per hour.
During dives, platypus are searching for small invertebrate animals on the bottom, including crustaceans, worms and molluscs, as well as the larvae of many freshwater insects. Once caught, these small prey are carried to the surface in cheek-pouches and then eaten. Platypus have no teeth, but instead have small, horny pads which they use to hold and grind their prey.
In some areas platypus spend a surprising amount of time out of water, crossing land between water bodies - even foraging for worms and other invertebrates in waterlogged paddocks.
Grooming of the fur is important to keep the animal's pelt in good condition and is carried out in the water or on land.
Mating occurs during spring but is generally earlier in the north of Australia than in the south. Mating takes place in the water and, after about 21 days, between one and three eggs are laid in a nesting burrow constructed by the female.
The eggs are incubated between the belly and the tail of the female and hatch after about 10 days. Like the echidna, the platypus lacks nipples. Milk from the mammary glands oozes through the skin along both sides of the mother's belly where it is then sucked up by the young platypuses. By six weeks, the young are furred, have their eyes open and may leave the burrow for short intervals and enter the water. When about four months, old the young are weaned.
Venom glands and spurs
Male platypuses have spurs on the inside of their hind legs which are attached to crural glands that produce a powerful venom. Male platypuses can inflict extremely painful wounds in humans, while the venom is capable of killing other animals such as dogs that attack them.
Platypuses are one of only five known venomous mammals but the precise role of the spur and venom is not fully understood. The spurs can inflict wounds on natural predators or other males, and may possibly play some part in the breeding behaviour of the species. The crural gland increases in size during the breeding season and the volume of poison produced increases.
Platypus are capable of many vocalisations including a soft growling sound when disturbed.
Have a listen this rarely heard
The platypus is totally protected throughout Australia. Although still common in many parts of its range, it is vulnerable to the continuing degradation of suitable water bodies and burrowing habitat. The illegal netting and trapping of fish also causes many platypus deaths, as do dogs and vehicles. Read the
platypus conservation guidelines
for more information on threats to platypuses and the
Tasmanian Platypus Management Plan
for the management actions and monitoring recommended for protecting this species.
There also is also concern about the potential impact of an infection to Tasmanian platypus caused by a fungus,
. Affected animals develop ulcers on various parts of the body that can lead to death from secondary infection and an inability to control body temperature. Find out more about
platypus fungal disease
and be sure to
report any sightings
of diseased platypus.
copyright: Sarah Munks
For an excellent review on platypus biology we recommend the fourth edition of a book simply called
by Tom Grant and illustrated by Dominic Fanning. See the CSIRO publishing website: