Platypus Facts For Kids | The Egg-laying Mammal

Unique among Australian mammals is the duck-billed platypus which is one of the rarest mammals that lays eggs. One can easily assume its cuddly disposition simply by looking at the animal so much so that doesn’t need any description. Many people however are not luck enough to see platypus at close hand. In the wild, one may across platypus in poor light when only the tip of its bill or tail is visible. Platypus is not only unique in its appearance but also in its swimming action. Unlike other marine mammals such as water-rat platypus swims by its smooth swimming action, characteristic bowwave, with no visible ears and rolling dive. Thanks to its webbed forefeet that helps the animal to swim smoothly.

Platypus Facts For Kids

Physical Characteristics

Platypus is 16–24 in (0.4–0.6 m) long and weighs up to 1.5–6.6 lb (0.7–3 kg).

NORTH QUEENSLAND: length 441 mm (males), weight 1018 g (males), 4 1 0 mm (females, 704 g (females)

SOUTHEASTERN QUEENSLAND: length 493 mm (males, 438 mm (females), weight 1 556 g (males), 1 222 g (females)

NEW SOUTH WALES, EAST OF DIVIDING RANGE: length 505 mm (males), 415 mm (females), weight 1 434 g (males) 857 g (females)

NEW SOUTH WALES, ON DIVIDING RANGE, length 549 nun (males), 470 mm (females), weight 221 5 g (males), 2000 g (female).

Platypus’ hindfeet are also webbed but these are merely used for steering or putting brakes on. It is also very quick on land but because of the fact that the web of the forefoot goes beyond the toes, platypus lifts its body on the knuckles of the hand.

Platypus’ body is covered with long flattened guard hairs while the underfur is extremely dense that it prevents the body from wetness even after long immersion.

It has slender head and body giving it a sleek appearance and well equipped for aquatic lifestyle.

Platypus’ body color appears to offer a reasonable camouflage in that it blends with the surroundings. One can get confused while seeing it either from above or below.

Platypus’ upper fur is dark brown. There is a light-colored spot in front of each of its eye. The chest and belly displays silvery cream color apart from the reddish or tawny streak that runs along the animal’s midline.

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It depends on its front limbs to propel itself through the water. Each of the front foot’s ends serves as an effective paddle with a wide expanse of webbing that aids in diving and swimming.

The hindlimbs are poorly webbed as they are mostly used for grooming the fur.

Prominent among platypus’ features is its duck-like bill. It serves a good many number of functions; apart from holding objects this soft and sensitive fleshy bill is also used to provide essential information about the surrounding environment.

The platypus is not as innocent as it may seem; it’s a poisonous mammal that can secrete venom from a gland located in the upper thigh. They are likely to produce venom either during or before the breeding season.

It is a small mammal a male normally 15 – 20% longer than a female. Males are also 60 – 90% heavier as compared to females. The largest platypus ever measured was about 24 in (0.6 m) long and weighed up to 6.6 lb (3 kg).

The platypus prevents the heat loss in the water by maintaining the body temperature at 89–90°F (32°C). The body is protected by two layers of dense woolly fur. The underside traps air when the animal is submerged and thus keeping it warm even in freezing water.

Distribution

Duck-billed platypus is readily found in the waters of eastern Australia. The animal can survive at high altitudes and in winter snows of Tasmania as well as in the tropical rainforest lowlands in the plateaus of northern Queensland.

Apart from the Australian Alps, platypus lives as far as north as Cooktown. They also inhabit on King Island. The platypus population had also been introduced in South Australia on Kangaroo Island, where authorities released 19 species in Flinders Chase National Park during 1928 to 1946.

In the western and central Australia, platypus is least likely to be found because there are no permanent streams and rivers in the regions. Besides crocodiles seemed to have hunted too much which led to the considerable decline in the northern range.

It is rather poorly distributed in the western tip of the country. Evidence suggests that it might have occupied much of Condamine River in Queensland as well as in the Murray River along with its tributaries in South Australia. Sadly enough, they are now extinct in that State.

Habitat

The platypus makes home in a variety of freshwater habitats such as rivers, ponds, and streams. They are not used to feeding on dry land and thus they are found in permanent water bodies. Platypus is also known to use human-made water bodies but the water must not be too deep.

They feed at a depth of less than 16.5 ft (5 m). Platypus is found in both agricultural and urban areas. They are rarely sighted in river estuaries though there is little to suggest that platypus inhabits saltwater habitats on a permanent basis.

The world’s first platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) twin puggles born in captivity at Taronga Zoo’s veterinary clinic in Sydney, Australia, March 28, 2003. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD)
The world’s first platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) twin puggles born in captivity at Taronga Zoo’s veterinary clinic in Sydney, Australia, March 28, 2003.
(Photo by AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD)

Behavior

It’s hard to observe platypus’ behavior because the animal is active only at night and partly because it feeds heavily underwater or underground burrows. Therefore radio-tracking devices are attached to them with the help of which its behavior, movements, and activity pattern are observed.

Platypus is a solitary animal but sometimes it is found in groups of three or four individuals especially while feeding. They have a typical home range of 0.5–6 mi (1–10 km). Typically males have bigger home ranges as compared to females.

It does not travel too far to search for food. They are known to spend 17 hours a day resting in a dry snug burrow which is often located in a bank of a river or stream, under a tangle of tree-roots.  The rest of the time it spends on feeding.

Platypus can dig a new burrow at the rate of around 1.5 ft (0.5 m) per hour. An adult platypus can have as many as dozen burrows within a few weeks provided the adult is not dependent on its young. When threatened while feeding platypus can easily find its burrow which is reasonably close to a safe refuge.

Platypus seldom vocalizes except when it feels threatened and if it does so it produces a high-pitched growl.

The platypus closes all its ear apertures, nostrils, and eyes in water so that it receives information from touch receptors in the skin of the bill.

Female platypus typically constructs nesting burrows before laying eggs. The length of these burrows is 20 m.

It is still unclear whether the platypus is territorial or not but reports of combat between individuals show that they do defend territories.

A platypus is also known to generate a certain amount of electricity in the water by a tail flick of a shrimp at a distance of 2 in (5 cm).

Feeding Ecology and Diet

The platypus primarily consumes many adult and larval invertebrates and rarely small vertebrates. It is known to feed on bottom-dwelling aquatic insects including mayfly larvae and caddis-fly.

Although not regularly it also eats snails, crayfish, worms, pea-shell mussels, and freshwater shrimps.

The animal has got a limited diet precisely due to the early loss of its teeth. These are later replaced by molar-grinding pads at the back of the mouth. These pads continue to grow to make up for the surface wear.

They snap large prey individually while the smaller prey is mostly separated from the bottom by the bill.

Platypus feeds heavily around dusk or dawn but this behavior seems to have changed because of water temperatures, human activity, day-length, locality, and the availability of food. This explains why platypus behaves like a nocturnal or at times diurnal animal.

A platypus is likely to find food by snapping up morsels or by digging under banks along with looking at the bottom sediments. It remains submerged for 10 – 60 seconds and it only comes to the surface to breathe or sometimes in order to chew its meal with side-to-side movement of the jaws.

When submerged the animal stores its food in cheek pouches.

It depends on its bill to find food underwater. Thanks to its bill which also helps platypus to locate the prey.

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)  (Photo by J. & D. Bartlett. Bruce Coleman)
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)
(Photo by J. & D. Bartlett. Bruce Coleman)

Reproductive Biology

Both duck-billed platypus and echidnas shares the egg-laying ability. Mating takes place in water.

The gestation period lasts three weeks. The female lays eggs in August to November. The breeding occurs in Queensland is earlier to that in the southern populations.

The length of the eggs is around 10–20 ft (3–6 m) but it can be longer than that.

The female blocks the burrow entry by several plugs of soil just to make sure the juvenile development is safe. The burrow becomes safe not only from predators such as Australian water-rats (Hydromys chrysogaster) or snakes but also prevents the young from drowning in flood.

One hatch contains 1 – 3 eggs. The female brings on green vegetation along with a large quantity of wet leaves prior to hatch.

The eggs are leathery-shelled which are incubated by female for 10 days. The young are 0.5 in (9 mm) long. These young are developed in the burrow for about four months during which they only drink milk.

Male and female reach maturity at the age of two years. Some females however lay eggs as later as four years.

The period of lactation is too long and as such the female leaves the burrow to forage while the young stays inside the nest.

A platypus does not form long-term pair bonds. The male will wander around to search for as many females as it can in order to mate.

Conservation Status

Common but Vulnerable

References

Books

Augee, Michael L., ed. Platypus and Echidnas. Mosman, New South Wales: The Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, 1992.

Grant, Tom. The Platypus: A Unique Mammal. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995.

Moyal, Ann. Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Periodicals

Fenner, P. J., J. A. Williamson, and D. Myers. “Platypus Envenomation—A Painful Learning Experience.” The Medical Journal of Australia 157 (1992): 829–832.

Serena, M., M. Worley, M. Swinnerton, and G. A. Williams. “Effect of Food Availability and Habitat on the Distribution of Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) Foraging Activity.” Australian Journal of Zoology 49 (2001): 263–277.

 

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