How – and why – was the platypus created? Was it formed by a committee, with each contributing his/her/its favorite body part? Why is a platypus considered a mammal if it lays eggs? Does a platypus exist only to create havoc in scientific classification systems?
That great bastion of knowledge, National Geographic, admits there is significant confusion regarding the platypus:
The platypus is among nature’s most unlikely animals. In fact, the first scientists to examine a specimen [in 1799] believed they were the victims of a hoax. The animal is best described as a hodgepodge of more familiar species: the duck (bill and webbed feet), beaver (tail), and otter (body and fur). Males are also venomous. They have sharp stingers on the heels of their rear feet and can use them to deliver a strong toxic blow to any foe. Source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/platypus/
Together with the four species of echidna, the platypus is one of the five existing species of monotremes, the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young. It is the sole living representative of its family (Ornithorhynchidae) and genus (Ornithorhynchus), though a few related species appear in the fossil record.
Some additional fun facts about platypuses:
- They were present on the supercontinent of Gondwana, when the continents of South America, Australia, and Antarctica were joined up to 167 million years ago
- Platypuses split from echidnas about 19-48 million years ago
- They lay eggs similar to those of reptiles
- Their eggs are internal for about 28 days, followed by 10 days of external incubation
- The females have mammary glands, with milk released through the pores of their skin, pooling into grooves in their abdomen for the young to lap up
- Unlike most mammals, their eyes have double cones and are similar to the Pacific hagfish or lamprey
- Their ears are not visible
- They don’t have teeth, so they pick up small pieces of rock to mash the food in their mouth before swallowing
- When on land, their webbing withdraws, exposing nails which allow them to run
- They store fat reserves in their tails
- They use neither sight nor smell to hunt; they close their eyes, ears, and nose when underwater
- They have electroreception, which is locating prey by the electrical fields generated by the prey; joining the echidna and one species of dolphin as the only mammals with electroreception
- Their genes are a combination of the mammalian XY and the bird/reptile ZW
- Three of the proteins in the male platypus’ venom belong uniquely to the platypus
- The have 10 sex chromosomes, compared to two in other mammals; their chromosomes are similar to bird Z chromosomes
- Although 80% of their genes are common mammalian genes, their genome also has reptilian genes, and two genes previously only found in birds, amphibians, and fish
Why is the plural “platypuses” and not “platypi,” you ask? The word “platypus” is from the Greek word for “flat-footed.” Although the word came through Latinization, it was not “Latin” enough to qualify it for the “i” pluralizing.
Given all of the information above, I conclude that the platypus was, indeed, formed by a committee from various bird, mammal, amphibian, and fish parts. And here’s my supporting evidence, from Wikipedia:
The platypus has been a subject in the Dreamtime stories of indigenous Australians, who believed the animal was a hybrid of a duck and a water rat. According to one story, the major animal groups, the land animals, water animals and birds, all competed for the platypus to join their respective groups, but the platypus ultimately decided to not join any of them, feeling that he did not need to be part of a group to be special.
You know, I like that statement: “he did not need to be part of a group to be special.” It could be a motto for everyone – because we are each individual and special in our own way. I also like that, when we start to think that we have everything figured out and placed into its appropriate “box,” along comes the platypus and throws a monkey-wrench into our perfectly-organized and structured world. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from a platypus:
- Be your own individual self
- Don’t follow the crowd
- Celebrate your differences
- Break the definition of “normal”
- Disrupt the complacency of others
That’s a lot of knowledge and power carried in a small composite body.
P.S. Yes, echidna-loving people, I hear you. Yes, indeed, I explained that the platypus and echidna are the only two egg-laying mammals and yes, I showed a picture of a platypus but not an echidna. Here you go, echidna-lovers:
To be honest, I don’t see the family resemblance.