Dating is difficult for most species on this globe. You have to look your best, be at the right place at the right time, and often fight off fierce competition. It's no different when you are a platypus (or 'næbdyr' in Danish). Indeed, these fascinating little creatures have added a toxic twist to their mating pursuits that fully embrace the song lyrics of the legendary Johnny Cash: 'I will make you hurt'
Everything is venomous in Australia! Well, maybe not everything is venomous, but Australia’s diversity of venomous animals is undoubtedly impressive. You can find a plethora of venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions, insects, fish, jellyfish, and many more. However, I would argue that one the country’s most unique creatures is its venomous duck-otter-beaver, more commonly known as the platypus.
The platypus is a very weird animal. It is a mammal, but lays eggs – making it one of two types of egg-laying mammals in existence. It also looks very odd, so odd that when British scientists in London examined the first specimen sent to them from Australia in 1799, they were sure someone was trying to fool them. One of the scientists (George Shaw) wrote that:
'It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means. Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.'
To be fair, I can’t blame him for thinking that some jokester had collected the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver, and the body of an otter, and stitched it together just to see if they could play a prank on their colleagues back in England.
What went wrong with the platypus?
However, it gets better: Male platypuses are venomous (female platypuses aren’t). They aren’t just a bit venomous or annoyingly venomous like a bee or wasp – no, they are very venomous. Though they likely won’t kill you (at least, there are no reported human deaths – yet), they will make you want to die because of the pain the venom induces.
During my studies in Australia, I met an army veteran, who had fought in Vietnam and had many scars and even more scarring stories to share. Yet, as a keen toxinologist, I found one story especially fascinating. Whilst on a hike, he came across a nearly entirely dried up pond by a stream. In that pond he saw a platypus struggling in the midday heat and he wanted to help by moving the 'poor little fella' into the stream, so he picked the rebellious platypus up. All went well until he was right by the slow-flowing stream, where he suddenly felt sharp and excruciating pain shoot up his right arm. He dropped the platypus (luckily into the water) and realised that the platypus must have been a male, since he was just impaled with the spur on the critter’s hind leg. The pain lasted for days and was described by the veteran as the worst pain he had ever experienced, even worse than the shrapnel that took him out of action in Vietnam.
Platypuses are venomous. The male platypus has a venomous spur on its hind limb.
Whilst agonising, the venom of the male platypus is quite fascinating. It is rather complex and has about 88 different toxins, some of which inhibit blood clotting, disrupt cell membranes, and activate pain receptors. However, for decades scientists have been struggling to understand what the venom is used for and why only males possess it. The current theory is that the venom has a primarily reproductive function and is used to fight off rival males over breeding females (a total 'Tox Block'). This theory of biowarfare in search of a mate is supported by the fact that their venom production is seasonal and links up with their mating season. Fortunately, when fights between males occur, the spur wounds they deal to each other heal reasonably fast, indicating that the envenomation merely hampers or temporarily disables competitors, rather than killing them (I still have to say I am quite content not being a platypus…).
Platypuses are actually adorable and pretty harmless creatures - except for the venom that induces pain reminiscent of that caused by shrapnel wounds.
Researchers have also found that platypus venom does not only cause harm, but potentially also has some therapeutic properties. Specifically, it contains GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1), which is produced by humans and other animals. GLP-1 promotes insulin release, and thereby indirectly lowers blood glucose levels. Unfortunately, it typically degrades very quickly. Excitingly, platypus GLP-1 is different in that it is long-lasting, which (if manufacturable) could present a treatment opportunity for diabetes patients.
So how come you find ‘beware of sharks’ or ‘beware of crocodiles’ signs all across the Australian wilderness, but no ‘beware of platypuses' signs? The answer is rather simple: Although they technically are venomous duck-otter-beaver-mutants, cute little fuzzballs that would never hurt you (unless you try to help them relocate to a different stream that is) is a more accurate description. They lead a very secluded life and will never attack you, as long as you aren’t a rival male platypus trying to steal a girl away…
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