National Geographic : 1939 Aug
AUSTRALIA'S PATCHWORK CREATURE, THE PLATYPUS Man Succeeds in Making Friends with This Duck-billed, Fur-coated Paradox which Lays Eggs and Suckles Its Young BY CHARLES H. HOLMES HIGH on the Australian Alps the win ter's snow is melting. The moun tain streams are full-flowing and after dusk ripples on the water denote life. Old Man Platypus, who lives a semiaquatic existence, commences his nightly outing for fun and food. His duck bill, soft as a piece of kid and pliable as rubber, cuts the water like the prow of a boat, front webbed feet giving powerful propulsion to his body, which is furred to the eyes. His back feet are webbed, too, but, for reasons best known to himself, the platypus merely trails his rear extremities. This time of the year his mate is likely to be in a nest of grass and gum leaves at the end of a twenty- or thirty-foot tunnel in the bank, hatching her eggs. If that be her occupation, the female platy pus will have sealed herself in the tunnel for three weeks and will have built up two or three earth plugs about a foot in thickness. And so the platypus furrowing the placid waters of the mountain stream may be a disconsolate outcast, just mooching about catching tadpoles or shrimps or the juicy white wood grubs that sometimes fall from the wattles lining the river bank (page 277). Or maybe the wandering male is courting other duck-billed folk of the egg laying variety. MALE WEARS POISON SPURS Early colonists in Australia made the acquaintance of the platypus, and what a paradox it proved: a duck's bill; a fur coat instead of feathers; four webbed feet instead of two; poison spurs on the hind legs of the male; the female laying and hatching eggs and suckling the young. An impossible patchwork creature it seemed, equally at home in the water or on the land, boasting something of fish, fowl, beast, and reptile and richly deserv ing the name it was given at first, Ornitho rhynchus paradoxus, or bird-bill paradox. Naturally the amazed colonists sent a skin to the British Museum. One of its naturalists fingered the rich fur with the broad bill unbelievingly, and was inspired to suggest at first that the bill of a duck had actually been grafted onto the skin of a quadruped! (Page 278). The world wondered and scientists in various countries sought living specimens, but received them dead. Out of five of the creatures netted in their mountain stream in 1922 and dis patched across the Pacific to the New York Zoological Park, only one survived and then for merely a matter of weeks. ONE OF THE WORLD'S TWO MOST PRIMITIVE MAMMALS The lonely platypus which reached New York was placed in a specially prepared tank and artificial burrow, where it excited great interest, for the platypus and the echidna, which also is an egg-laying animal, are the most primitive of all living mam mals in the world today. As types, they should have disappeared from the earth millions of years ago, but through time's forgetfulness they remain as living remind ers of their reptilian ancestors. In the New York zoo, the platypus which survived ate heartily. In fact, it ate nearly half its own weight in shrimps every 24 hours. But no living creature had ever been forced to endure such a fierce flood light of publicity and at the end of 47 days the shy animal felt it had suffered man too long; Ornithorhynchus anatinus closed its bloodshot, beady little eyes and, in dying, received even greater publicity. Today no platypus can be exported alive from continental Australia and the law is most stringent. You cannot touch the won der animal. If you are found in pos session of a platypus, dead or alive, or even of a skin, it means a big fine. In ear lier days many a rug made from dozens of platypus skins fetched high prices in other lands, for the fur is thick and beautiful.