Ah, the elusive platypus. The water dwelling animal with fur, webbed feet and a beak. It may just be the strangest animal on the planet. Not only does it look weird, it’s poisonous, can sense electricity, lays eggs and secrete milk through their skin, and have an excessive number of sex chromosomes.
It is SERIOUSLY poisonous. The males have poison barbs under their front feet which they mainly use during the spring breeding season. One scratch from these babies and you will be in terrible agony.
My friend studied platypuses (yes, that’s the plural I checked) in honours and her colleague injected himself with platypus venom in the name of science. For months he had excruciating pain for months which did not respond to any painkillers, including morphine. Because of this quality, platypus venom could help scientists develop drugs which work differently to our current repertoire.
Research into platypus venom is lacking because it is hard to come across samples. But just last month researchers identified 83 possible venom genes using DNA extracted from an active venom gland. Some of the genes are similar to those in snakes, pufferfish and starfish. Now the platypus hardly evolved from a starfish. Instead, it’s an example of convergent evolution, traits that arise separately in different species and give a selective advantage. Illustrious journal Nature says platypus venom confirms the convergent evolution theory for venom. (Research paper Whittington CM, & et al (2010). Novel venom gene discovery in the platypus. Genome biology, 11 (9) PMID: 20920228)
Sharks use electroreception to find prey by sensing the electricity animals have in their body. Monotromes (mammals that lay eggs) including platypuses and echidnas, are the only mammals with the same ability, and the platypus is the strongest. Closing its eyes and nose when it dives, the platypus relies almost entirely on electrolocation and touch to find the tasty crustaceans it snacks on. Sharks and platypuses are hardly related, making this another yet another example of convergent evolution.
Electroreceptors are located in rows on the bill, which might help it find prey by noticing which receptors pick up the electricity first. We do the same thing with our ears, hearing noises at slightly different times tells us which direction the sound is coming from. When the platypus hunts, it moves its bill side to side, which might reveal how far away the prey is. It’s similar to how pigeons bob their head for depth perception.
A female platypus has two ovaries, but only the left one is functional. Why? We don’t know.
Eggs spend 28 days developing inside their mother’s body and 10 days outside. The babies (often called puggles) are born with teeth, which drop out as they mature.
The mother produces milk, but she doesn’t have teats or nipples. Instead puggles lick or nibble on her skin to drink, gaining nutrients and probably an immune system. Living in mud, platypuses are born with no immune system, making them worse off than human babies which have immature immune systems at birth and rely on colostrum to boost their protection.
Since the platypus genome was sequenced in 2008, we know a bit about these strange sex chromosomes. We know that they are more similar to birds than mammals, suggesting that our own mammal-like reptile ancestors might have had sex chromosomes like the birds of today. But there’s one big difference that makes the platypus unique.
They have ten sex chromosomes. Males have five X and five Y. Females have ten X. Humans, in fact, almost all mammals have only two. During platypus sperm production, the sex chromosomes pair up as X1Y1, X2Y2, X3Y3, X4,Y4, X5,Y5, so they can split evenly to make sperm that have 5X or 5Y. Phew. After all that, I’m surprised the males have any energy left for mating.