There are only five species in the order of monotremes – mammals that lay eggs – and they all live in Australia. Four of the monotreme species are echidnas, a sort of anteaters. The fifth is the single strangest mammal out there: the platypus.
The platypus is so unique, and so unmistakably different from any other animal, that I get really annoyed when people want to be super-specific and call it “duck-billed platypus”. As if we were at risk of confusing it with any of the many other different types of platypus. Oh, that’s right. There are no different types. There is just platypus.
I first saw a platypus at Healesville sanctuary, when I was 13. I most recently saw one at the British Museum. That one was dead. But my favourite platypus encounter was at Eungella National Park in Queensland.
It was quite a drive to Eungella from Airlie Beach, where we were staying, but everywhere in Australia is “quite a drive” by European standards. Nevertheless, we went from the beach, through fields, up a range of hills, into a rainforest and it took a few hours to get there.
We went to Eungella specifically to see platypus in the wild. Because of the driving distance, we ended up at the platypus platform in the middle of the day. Supposedly, this is the worst time of day to see platypus. Like B-movie vampires, they prefer dusk and dawn, and tend to hide when the sun is out. We weren’t guaranteed to see any at all.
The viewing platform is built next to a section of Broken River where the animals live. It’s so much better than a zoo, it’s their real home, and it just happens to have a deck for humans to lean over the railing and peek at platypus.
There are signs on the platform that explain how to spot a platypus. They’re small, brown, and quiet, and spend a lot of time under water, so they’re easy to miss. But if you find the bubble patterns they leave behind, you can track them and roughly predict where they’ll come up for air.
Despite being there in the middle of the day, we were lucky, and found two very active and playful animals. They weren’t close enough together to both photograph at once, but it was amazing to see a pair of them.
The total number of platypus in existence is not known, and although it’s not considered an endangered species, there aren’t that many, and it only lives along the east coast of Australia. Because it’s such a unique animal – the only living member of the family of Ornithorhynchidae, and one of only five species in the order of monotremes – it is a species that the EDGE of Existence Program and other conservation initiatives are keeping an eye on.
The platypus genome was sequenced a few years ago, and revealed what we already knew: platypus are definitely unique. They have kept some genes for millions of years, and added interesting new ones, for venom-production for example.
This tiny venomous swimming egg-laying billed mammal is the only species in a whole family of animals. It’s cute, playful and elusive, and well worth driving for hours to get a chance to see. Its genome contains puzzle pieces for evolutionary biologists to work with. Does it know the power it has over scientists and tourists alike? I think it does. That’s why it’s always smiling.