Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Exciting news on the platypus, one of my favorite creatures on earth! That is not an ironic exclamation point. ("Henry James said you get eight to use in your lifetime," growled my late great teacher Frank Conroy, and yes, I'm using one of them now.) Scientists have unraveled the platypus's genetic code, and it is an evolutionary treasure, bearing avian, reptilian, and mammalian features.

The platypus is intensely private and secretive. From their first discovery by British scientists in the late 1700s, they have proven maddeningly elusive. Few people ever see them in the wild, they are difficult to catch, and they seldom give birth in captivity (only twice since 1944.) They have poisonous spurs on their feet. They are much more intelligent than their fellow monotreme the echidna (i.e. the only other egg-laying mammal.) And they have voracious appetites--a platypus can catch and eat half its own weight in one feeding--and a sixth sense, an electrosensory ability to detect even minute changes in the electrical field generated by their prey.
In her delightful book Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, Ann Moyal describes how in 1943, Winston Churchill himself initiated the plans for the first platypus to be brought alive to Europe. After months of covert planning--for some reason, it was treated as a top-secret operation--Winston set sail in his platypusary-equipped ship. Alas:

Almost through the Atlantic, a thriving and healthy Winston was feeding ravenously. Within four days' sail of England, disaster struck. The ship's sonar detected the presence of a submarine. The rapid discharge of depth charges into the surrounding waters saved the ship and its men. But the jarring detonations instantly killed the platypus. His highly sensitive, nerve-pocked bill, designed as a complex sense organ to detect the smallest insect at the bottom of the river and to respond to the slightest vibrations of the natural world, was unable to deal with the violent explosions of men.
In same book, you can read all about how the platypus (once it was determined to be a real creature, not a jackalope-type hoax) was caught up in a 90-year debate about taxonomy, creation, and evolution, with massive infighting involving Sir Richard Owen and Charles Darwin himself. Plus it contains beautiful color plates of old platypus drawings.
On that note, here is an assortment of pictures from the folder called PLATYPUS on my computer. I don't know where they all came from, apologies to the original photographers and posters of them, whomever you may be. Behold, enjoy, marvel.

P.S. Also, platypuses do not have nipples--they secrete milk through their skin!

1 comment:

sebastianhope said...

That's what I call a blog post, way to go Chelsey..