Underdogs of the Animal World: Platypus
When cuteness was being handed out, the platypus was out partying. When he eventually showed up, covered in body glitter, all that remained in the animal anatomy box were the body part equivalents of a feather boa, a sombrero and a pair of clogs. So the platypus ended up looking like a beaver that’s mugged an otter and a duck, and swallowed some magic beans in the process, giving it the bizarre ability to lay eggs. In a bird, that’s not so weird. In a mammal, it’s pretty darn freaky. In fact, there are only five mammals that do this. They’re called monotremes and the other mammals don’t let them sit with them, not even if they wear pink on a Wednesday.
The platypus is such a freaky looking creature that when Europeans moved to Australia and sent a description of the local wildlife along with a platypus skin, the folks back home thought they were being Punk’d! They decided that some joker had sewn a duck’s beak onto a beaver as a prank, and even checked the skin for stitches. The platypus’s snout isn’t like a bird’s though. Whereas a bird’s beak opens up to reveal the mouth, the platypus’s mouth is underneath his bill, which he uses to sense food.
Unlike humans, the platypus doesn’t just sniff and realise there’s a Nandos close by. When they’re diving into the depths of the riverbed, where they do their food hunting, their nostrils are closed, as well as their eyes and ears. So instead of the tried and tested methods of food foraging, the platypus uses good old wizardry to source their grub. Ok, so they’re maybe not at Harry Potter levels of sorcery, but they’re at least on level Neville. The trick is that their snouts have special electroreceptors built-in to detect living creatures. Scientists know this because they took the time to make pretend shrimp and shoot an electric current through them, which the platypus of course gobbled up. Mmm, electricity…
Speaking of nommage, the platypus is an out-and-out carnivore, but unlike most carnivores, it has no teeth, which can make things a little bit tricky. But just like grandpa, platypuses won’t let a teensy thing like having no teeth get in the way of a buffet, so just like grandpa, they take their false gnashers out, drop them in someone’s diet cola and watch the hilarity ensue. Although some platypuses may actually do this, the truth is a bit less likely to end in a YouTube video. The platypus scoops up all the yummy bugs it fancies from the bottom of the river (it needs 20% of its own weight EVERY DAY!) as well as bits of gravel, stores them in its hamster cheeks until it gets to the surface, then mashes it all up, like a washing machine full of quarters.
Even though they’re funny looking, you don’t wanna mess with a platypus. The males have a spur that’s loaded with enough venom to kill one of Paris Hilton’s dogs. But why would such a cuddlified animal need to pack in the poison? Well, studies have found that the levels of venom rise in the breeding season, and since there’s only enough power behind the spur to incapacitate a human, (the platypus’s main threat until it became illegal to kill them) and given the fact that the ladies aren’t as violently blessed, it seems that the spur is meant to be used to assert dominance over the female when it comes to making babies. Ouch.
So back to the weird, laying eggs malarkey. The eggs will develop in the body for eighteen days, before the platypus pops out one or two eggs. She hangs out in her burrow, guarding her teensy, blind, bald babies and feeding them milk, like a proper mammal, but doing it in a really weird way. The milk leaks through the platypus’s skin and pools on top of her belly, since the lady platypus doesn’t have nipples. If she did, this would be a much easier process, because apparently you can milk anything with nipples, though I’ve had a chat with Robert De Niro and that fact remains unconfirmed. At around four months old, the (still adorable, but much tougher) baby platypuses make their way out of the burrow to hunt for food, using their magic wands. Or, you, know, their snouts.
And here’s one last fact for you: There is no official name for a baby platypus. Lots of people think that they should be called platypups though, and I totes agree!