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Platypus. Photo Barry Baker.
Platypus. Photo Barry Baker.

Platypus

Scientific name: Ornithorhynchus anatinus

A unique, venomous, semi-aquatic mammal that lays eggs and uses electroreception to find its prey.

From top to tail, a platypus can be 60cm long. Males can weigh 3kg; females 1.7kg. In colder climates they can grow slightly larger, but don’t come close to the size of prehistoric platypuses, which were a metre long!

The name Platypus comes from the Greek word for ‘flat-footed’. They're awkward on land, walking on their knuckles to protect the webbing of their feet.

Expert swimmers, they use these webbed feet to propel themselves and use their tails to steer through the water.

Platypus. Photo Steve Parish.

Their dense, silky brown fur is both waterproof and insulating – along with the fat reserves in their tails, their fur allows them to stay warm underwater.

Their ‘duck bill’ is flexible, rubbery and feels like suede. It’s used to dig up food from the riverbed. A Platypus bill is also highly sensitive. They use electroreceptors on their bills to detect electrical signals given off by moving prey.

With their eyes, ears and nostrils closed, Platypus use electroreception to detect movement underwater.

Up for air. A Platypus floats along the Murrumbidgee River on Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Richard Taylor.

This explains their characteristic side-to-side head movement while hunting. In this way they hunt for prey underwater for 30 to 140 seconds at a time.

The Platypus is one of very few venomous mammals in the world. The spur on the male’s hind foot is connected to a venom-secreting gland. Research suggests the spur is used in aggressive encounters between rival males.

For humans, the venom is non-fatal, but it can cause swelling, loss of muscle control and severe pain.

It’s little wonder that 19th Century European scientists found it difficult to believe the Platypus was real, and thought this half-beaver, half-bird to be an elaborate hoax.

Today the Platypus is celebrated as one of Australia’s most unusual and unique animals – it’s the state animal of NSW and proudly represented Australia in the 2000 Olympics as a mascot!

Taxonomically, it’s the only species in the family Ornithorhynchidae.

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Where do Platypus live?

Platypuses are only found in east and south-eastern Australia. They’re found in freshwater creeks and rivers of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. They can live in many habitats, from tropical rainforest creeks to streams in alpine areas.

Platypuses are not endangered but the International Union for Conservation of Nature has upgraded their status to ‘Near Threatened’. Elusive by nature, there’s a lack of reliable data about where and in what numbers they occur. They’re protected by legislation in all of Australia’s eastern states.

The Murrumbidgee River on Scottsdale Reserve provides habitat for Platypus. Photo Peter Saunders.

How do Platypus behave?

Platypuses are mostly nocturnal. During the day they sleep in the chambers at the end of riverbank burrows. At dusk they emerge to search the river bottom for food, sometimes hunting for 10 to 12 hours a night.

They’re completely carnivorous (meat-eating) and mostly eat invertebrates: swimming beetles and waterbugs, insect larvae, tadpoles, worms, snails and shrimp.

They scoop up gravel and dirt along with their prey, store it in their cheek-pouches, and bring it all to the surface to eat.

A swimming Platypus.Photo Steve Parish.

Like echidnas, platypuses don’t have teeth. Instead, they use a grinding plate to mash the gravel, soil and food slurry, scooped from the riverbed. They can eat an impressive amount of food in a night – up to 20% of their own body weight!

Females breed at 4 years. After burrowing deep into the riverbank, pregnant females lay one or two eggs. Here, curled up in protective chambers, they incubate their eggs between their tail and rump.

Bean-sized babies emerge from the egg after 10 days and are fed milk for about four months.

Platypuses don’t have nipples; instead milk is secreted through pores and licked off the mother’s skin or fur.

By the time the young are weaned off milk they can swim independently. While largely solitary, Platypuses don’t mind sharing their waterbody with other individuals.

They can live to 12 years old in the wild.

Threats to Platypus

Given their dependence on freshwater systems, habitat destruction and waterway pollution threaten this species.

Water extraction, dams and diversions to water flow have a big impact. Water quality and in-stream habitat (such as submerged logs) are critical so degradation of these elements is a threat.

Run-off from pasture (sediments and nutrient load) can degrade Platypus habitat.

Platypuses are eaten by snakes, water rats, birds of prey and occasionally crocodiles. It’s likely that foxes, dingoes and wild dogs kill Platypuses that venture on land. They were once hunted for their fur – pelts are both warm and waterproof.

What Bush Heritage is doing

Sit quietly by the water at our Liffey Valley, ‘Nameless’ Sylvan or Scottsdale reserves and you might spot this shy species. We look after their habitat by maintaining riparian vegetation (which filters run-off into waterways) and in-stream habitat (e.g. fallen logs, deep pools) and by managing stream-bank erosion.

Platypus

This juvenile was rescued from a sinkhole at Black Rock Gorge, which is a little travelled and pristine section of the upper Murrumbidgee River … part of which forms the Scottsdale Reserve boundary. Unable to climb out, it was swimming ‘round and round’ and by the bedraggled looks of it, might have been there for a while!

On being hauled up, the little platy rested, exhausted in the rescuer’s hands, but to our delight after about 5 minutes started to preen itself. Twenty minutes later, its fur fluffed up like a mink coat on parade, it was larking about amongst the rocks!

Bush Heritage at Scottsdale is a key partner of the Upper Murrumbidgee Demonstration Reach (UMDR).


Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work.

Platypus stories

BLOG 01/09/2022

Platypus spotted on Yourka Reserve!

We recently found a Platypus in Cameron creek - the first record of the species on Yourka Reserve. It's a sign of good river health and hopefully, there are more sightings to come.

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BLOG 03/09/2019

A special moment in time

It was a beautiful afternoon settling into my position on the bank of the great Murrumbidgee River to be part of the annual Platypus and Water Rat survey on Scottsdale Reserve in New South Wales.

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BUSHTRACKS 11/12/2018

Platypus patrol

A group of dedicated volunteers is helping to shed light on Platypus populations in the upper Murrumbidgee River.

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BLOG 28/09/2018

Platypus watched at Scottsdale

An extra hardy bunch of volunteers braved temperatures as low as -8 degrees to survey Platypus at Scottsdale Reserve during August! Though our volunteers were not disappointed, sightings were down this year and Platypus seemed more wary and shy.

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BLOG 12/09/2017

Murrumbidgee Platypus surveys

In the last week of August 10 volunteers conducted the annual platypus survey on the Upper Murrumbidgee River at Scottsdale Reserve, in association with Cooma Waterwatch coordinator, Antia Brademan and Reserve Manger, Phil Palmer.

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BUSHTRACKS 14/03/2017

A different lens

The sun is just rising over Scottsdale Reserve as Richard Taylor quietly slips from the sleeping quarters. The chill in the air reminds him of his native Lancashire in north-west England, although the landscape is vastly different. With him are his trusty camera and a collection of lenses.

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BUSHTRACKS 06/12/2016

Scottsdale’s loveable larrikin

Chilly temperatures can’t deter a small group of Bush Heritage volunteers from getting to know one of one of Australia’s most iconic species – the Platypus – a little bit better.

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BLOG 22/10/2016

Volunteers in huge Platypus surveys!

We're not talking about surveying a huge Platypus, but about the huge effort Bush Heritage volunteers and Scottsdale Reserve Manager Phil Palmer have put in to support the Upper Murrumbidgee Waterwatch Platypus surveys this year!

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