Word Wednesday: Platypus

The platypus, also known as the Australian duck-mole, is a fascinating creature with a complicated history. In fact, when European naturalists first saw it they thought it was an elaborate hoax because of its duck-bill, beaver-tail and its ability to lay eggs! Today, we better understand the platypus, but it continues to thrill people from all over the world.

Platypus at the Sydney Aquarium (by Stefan Kraft)


The name platypus can be broken down into two parts: platy and –pus.  Platy comes from the Greek word ‘platys’ which means flat or broad and –pus comes from the Greek word ‘pous’ which means foot. Ergo, platypus means ‘flat-footed’. Personally, I don’t think this name is as descriptive as it could be. Originally it was intended to be the name of the platypus’ genus, but it had already been used to describe the wood-boring ambrosia beetle. The scientific name was then changed to:

Ornithorhyncus anatinus

Scientific names can seem overwhelming at first, but they can typically be broken down just as easily as any other scientific term. Starting with the genus, Ornithorhynchus can break down into two parts: ornitho and –rhynchusOrnitho comes from the Greek word ‘ornis‘ meaning bird and –rhynchus comes from the Greek word ‘rhynkhos’ which means snout. The second half of the name, anatinus, does not need to be broken down. In Latin, anatinus means ‘duck-like’. Putting it all together, Ornithorhyncus anatinus literally mean duck-like bird-snout. This is a much better description of the platypus!

Mammal Phylogeny (O’Brien, 2008)

Now we know what platypus means, but what is a platypus? They live in burrows along the banks of freshwater rivers and lakes on the eastern coast of Australia, and are predominately nocturnal. Platypus are monotremes (meaning mammals that lay eggs) and along with the extant species of echidna, they are one of only three species of monotremes in the world, all of which live in Australia. They are some of the oldest orders of mammals, followed by the marsupials, and platypus as we know them have been around for approximately 9 million years. In the fossil record, there are remains of other species of platypus, but today there is only one. Because monotremes are basal mammals, they often differ drastically from the more derived orders.

Anatomically, the platypus is incredibly unique. Its duck-bill contains electroreceptors that allow it to find insects hidden in the mud at the bottom of a lake or river. Female platypus lay 2-4 leathery eggs each breeding season. Unlike birds or reptiles, platypus eggs develop in utero for about 28 days and are then incubated externally for about 10 days. After the eggs have hatched, the female produces milk from large glands beneath her skin, which is then secreted through pores on her abdomen. Baby platypus are born with teeth but lose them as the grow older and adults instead grind their food with horny plates in their mouths. Males have hollow spurs at the ankle of their hind legs which are connected to a venom gland. These venomous spurs are used in defense and to assert dominance during the breeding season. The venom can kill smaller animals and though it won’t kill a human, the pain is excruciating.

Platypus skeleton at the Melbourne Museum (by Peter Halasz)

Despite the common misconception, a baby platypus is not called a ‘puggle’. In fact, there is no official name for a baby platypus, but ‘platypup’ is commonly suggested. Similarly, the plural of platypus is not ‘platypi’. Because the root of platypus is Greek and not Latin, the plural should be ‘platypodes’. However, ‘platypuses’ and simply ‘platypus’ are also accepted.

The platypus is an amazing creature. As well as being a scientifically fascinating animal, it is also a source of pride in Australia. It is frequently used as a national mascot, it is the animal emblem of New South Wales, and it appears on the reverse of the 20 cent coin. The platypus is also a part of pop culture, from Pride and Platypus to Perry the Platypus in the tv show Phineas and Ferb.

To learn more about the platypus, check out the links below!

Online Etymology Dictionary: Platypus

Australian Fauna: Platypus


O’Brien, S.J. 2008. The Platypus Genome Unraveled. Cell 133:6, 953-955. 


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