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Photo by Frits and Paula
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A platypus, usually a night hunter and bottom feeder, taking a swim at the surface.

When a stuffed platypus was first seen in Europe, it was widely believed to have been carefully sewn together by some time-weary sailor. An animal that had the fur of a mammal and fed its young on milk, yet brought those young forth from eggs, was too much for the average sensible citizen. It was at first dubbed Ornithorhyncus paradoxus, "bird-nosed puzzle", but now is properly called Ornithorhyncus anatinus, the latter part of the name apparently meaning "duck". It's often referred to as the "duck-billed platypus," which makes one tend to wonder just how many non-duckbilled kinds of platypus might exist!

Platypus are less than 50 centimetres long, and between a quarter and a third of their length is the flat, strong swimming tail. Covered as they are with velvety fur, thousands of them fell victim to colonists needing material for clothes and bedding. Some of the carefully made garments are today displayed in museums, and since it became a wholly protected species its numbers have increased a little.

Platypus are carnivorous, and quite fierce and inescapable if you happen to be a yabby (Australian fresh-water crayfish). Smaller creatures are the mainstay of the diet, though, and much time is spent shovelling through the mud at the river bottom in search of prey. Adult males have a poisonous spur on the inside of each hind leg, but this is a weapon against competing males rather than a hunting aid.

These little creatures set up home in burrows that they make in a river bank. One entrance may be under water, but there is always another in the dry part of the bank to allow fresh air to circulate to the chambers inside. If absolutely necessary, the platypus can remain submerged for up to five minutes, but it prefers to come up for air every two minutes or so.

Some aboriginal people have a story about a beautiful young duckling who was kidnapped by and forced to marry a water rat.

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