Animals

Perplexing Platypus Promotes Plentiful Pondering

The general scientific consensus was that someone was trying to pull off a hoax. The newly-discovered animal could not possibly be real. It was an admirable effort, to be sure. It appeared that a skillful taxidermist had somehow attached a duck’s bill to a beaver’s body. Nice try, but it was too ridiculous to fool Britain’s top minds.

Many questioned George Shaw’s wisdom in including the creature in his 1799 edition of The Naturalist’s Miscellany. Shaw had personally examined the pelt that arrived from Australia and used scissors to search in vain for stitches that would prove the deception. Although he could not find obvious tomfoolery, he noted that it was impossible not to entertain doubts about the creature’s genuineness.

It makes sense that Shaw took the risk of suggesting the possibility that the creature was genuine. The eminent zoologist and botanist was not afraid of taking positions that ran counter to popular consensus. He said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Shaw’s “unreasonable” decision to include the dubious creature in his book offered the world its first opportunity to see the platypus. One look at the animal explains why there were doubts about its veracity. Its appearance alone is freaky, but that’s just the beginning of this oddity of nature.

Native to the eastern coast of Australia as well as Tasmania, the platypus has some surprising features. It is the only mammal, other than a species of dolphin, to use electrolocation to find prey. When it dives, it closes its eyes, nose, and ears, so it is unable to find prey through sight, smell, or sound. Instead, its muscles generate an electric field that acts as a guidance and detection system.

Credit: Chiswick Chap (graphics); File:Wild Platypus 4 (cropped).jpg (background image)

Scientists recently discovered that the platypus is bioluminescent. When exposed to a black light, it emits a bluish-green color.

Although the platypus may look cute and cuddly, the males are equipped with venomous spurs on their hind legs. The venom is ordinarily not strong enough to kill a human, but it is excruciatingly painful and certainly powerful enough to negate any instinctive urge to cuddle with the critter.

What the platypus is missing is at least as interesting as what it has. No matter how carefully you look, you won’t find its stomach. Instead, it has an esophagus that connects the mouth to the intestine.

Also missing from the digestive process are teeth. They rely, instead, on the process used by many birds by swallowing gravel to help grind their food into digestible bits.

The platypus is a mammal, but it lays eggs like a bird. The tiny babies emerge from the eggs, resembling small lima beans. The hungry babies, like other mammals, turn to their mothers for milk. The milk comes not from nipples but is sweated out through the pores on the mother’s skin.

Lastly, you may be wondering what the plural form of platypus is. The Greek form of the plural is platypodes, but the English term is platypuses. A group of platypuses is known as a paddle.


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