Additional Notes - The Platypus Paradox
Original article - The Platypus Paradox.
The platypus was mentioned in one of the first lectures I attended in college. I don’t remember what was the context, but it was presented, as it usually is, as a marvelous mixture of animals. I found it amusing and took a mental note to read up about this subject one day. I don’t believe that anyone can look at this animal and not find it, at least, charming.
When I started my research on the Ornithorhynchus I remembered only that it was remarkable for being an egg-laying mammal. In the back of my head, I remembered that it might be venomous, as well. Naturally, these were the first points I looked up. Then, I found that the rabbit’s hole (or platypus’ burrow) goes way deeper than I could have guessed. Every bit of information I came across seemed unexpected. And whenever I thought that it was going to end, something new popped up. This little creature kept surprising me. When I first saw a picture of it, I thought its expression was of simple, happy carelessness. Now I feel as if it is wearing a poker face that means ‘you don’t know me’. Anyway, here’s some extra information about these little guys.
The platypuses probably don’t care about what we call them, but I have to mention this: many people believe that the plural of Platypus is Platypi. I agree that it’s a very fun word to say, but unfortunately, it is not correct. This form of pluralization works for Latin words, but the word platypus originates from Greek. There is no one agreed upon plural of platypus, and so it would usually either be platypodes, the correct Greek pluralization, or simply Platypuses. In my opinion, the Platypi form might be too ingrained and will simply become the correct form over time.
When I read about the platypus and its reproduction methods, I imagined its eggs to be similar to those of a chicken. I soon found out that I was wrong. A chicken egg is formed within the chicken in a period of a day and is externally incubated for 21 days or so. Also, the shell of a chicken egg hardens around a fully formed egg, which will not change in size. In contrast, the platypus egg is formed within the platypus in a period of 28 days, and then externally incubated for 10 days or so. The platypus egg increases in size and somewhat changes structurally before it is laid. It starts at 4 millimeters in diameter, in the shape of a sphere, and it grows to be around 16 millimeters and more elliptical.
The first preserved platypus has reached Europe in 1798, but it has taken years and years until a live one has set foot outside of Australia or Tasmania. At the early years of the 20th century, Henry Burrell, an Australian naturalist, has tried to raise platypuses in captivity. These creatures are hard to keep, as they are very sensitive to changes in conditions and require a surprising amount of food. Towards that goal, Burrell has designed the first artificial habitat. He called it a ‘Platypusary’ - a platypus nursery. With a functioning platypusary available, in 1922 he sent five male platypuses to America. Only one of these has survived the trip and became the first live platypus to be seen in America or Europe.
Two decades later, Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom, has discovered a great interest in the platypus. In 1943, while still immersed in World War II, he has contacted John Curtin, the Australian Prime minister, with a request for six live platypuses. By that time, no living platypus has yet arrived in Europe, but Churchill was a big fan of Australian animals - he had six black swans, who originate from Australia, as well. David Fleay, an Australian naturalist, has agreed to catch just one platypus for Churchill. He did and he even named it Winston. Winston the platypus was sent by ship to the UK. Unfortunately, along the way, the ship has encountered an enemy submarine. The ship has survived the encounter by releasing depth charges to fight off the submarine, but the shock from the detonations was probably too much for Winston the platypus, who died en route. Winston was later mounted and placed on Churchill’s office desk.
The platypus, which normally reaches a size of 40-50 centimeters, is the only living member of its family. In 2012, a fossilized tooth was discovered and is thought to be the tooth of a bigger brother of the platypus - Obdurodon tharalkooschild. Imagine, alligator-like giant platypi roaming in eastern Australia. I’m kidding, though, because the obdurodon grew to be double the size of today’s platypus, at close to a meter long. That is pretty big, but I don’t know if I would call it a giant. You can read more about its discovery right here.
For more detailed stories about the platypus and everything that relates to it, I would recommend the book Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World. I enjoyed the way it tells the story of the platypus. It portrays the confusion that followed wherever the platypus was taken in an interesting way.
Thanks for reading!