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Peggy Keener: When the great creator went wild

What an imagination the Almighty had when he/she conjured up the idea for the giraffe’s neck, the elephant’s trunk, the kangaroo’s pouch and the crocodile’s mouth! Talk about tripping the fanciful lights fantastic! He/she must have become bored, needing a break after fabricating all those same-old, same-old dogs and cats.

To be sure, of all the known animals on this earth, one in particular takes the cake. In the game of comparisons, this creature wins hands down. What kind of silly, ridiculous, nonsensical mood must the Creator have been in when he/she made the platypus? Or was it that he/she simply had a bunch of leftover animal parts that frugality did not allow him/her to waste? Then in a sudden burst of overzealousness, he/she stuck them all together! (Note: this would have to have been done with waterproof Gorilla Glue because the platypus spends most of its life under water.)

From Australia, in about 1799, specimens of this remarkable creature were sent to scientists in England. They thought the Aussies were playing a trick on them. Another 100 years passed before it was realized that they could lay eggs. (The platypuses, not the scientists!)

The ornithorhynchus anatinus runs around 13” long, 5” tall and weighs 3 pounds. It is both a mammal and a carnivore, and can best be described as a random hodgepodge of various critters’ components. For example, this little animal clearly has the duck’s bill and webbed feet, the beaver’s tail and the otter’s body and fur.  But, what’s with that, anyway? And why? Was it that the overtaxed Creator simply needed a day of R&R in which it was okay to break the rules?

The male platypus is venomous. He has sharp stingers on the heels of his rear feet which he can use to deliver strong toxic blows to bullies that make fun of him. This appendage is seasonally activated, though, and mostly utilized during the mating season to fend off competing males.

Platypuses hunt under water where they are graceful swimmers,  paddling with their front webbed feet while steering with their hind feet and pancake-like tails. Their eyes and ears are covered with protective folds of skin that prevent water from entering and their nostrils close tightly with a watertight seal. Because of these safeguards, they can remain submerged under water for up to two minutes while they employ their sensitive duck bills to search for food.

Bottom feeders, they scoop up insects, larvae, shellfish and worms into their backhoe-like bills along with bits of gravel and mud. This cornucopia of deliciousness is then stored in cheek pouches and carried to the surface where it is mashed up for consumption. (This is somewhat like the treat of eating hot dishes prepared by the Presbyterian Ladies’ Guild.) As they have no teeth, the pieces of gravel help them “chew” their food. (Once again I refer to the platypuses, not the Presbyterian ladies.)

As elegant as they are in water, the platypuses are awkward on land. To help them navigate on terra firma, the webbing on their feet draws back to expose individual nails that allow them to grip as they walk. These retractable nails also aid in constructing dirt burrows along the water’s edge.

In another quirk of imagination, the platypus was created as an egg laying mammal! Either because they’re embarrassed about this mix-up or they simply desire privacy, the females seal themselves inside one of the chambers in their burrows. There they proceed to lay one or two leathery shelled eggs that are kept warm by gently holding them between their bodies and tails. Wee little platypus-ettes hatch in roughly ten days.

Moms nurse the helpless babies for three to four months. But, true to form, they also differ drastically in this function. Moms do not have nipples. Instead their milk is released from mammary gland ducts on the mother’s abdomen. The babies suck out the milk from the folds in her skin and fur. (Must be tough for her to find a good fitting bra!)

Here are some curious facts that you may not know about the platypus:

• They do not have stomachs. Instead they have gullets that connect directly to their intestines. This lack of a poochy tummy explains why you never find a platypus needing to wear Spanks or a long line Warner’s girdle.

• Their bill gives them a “sixth” sense. It is comprised of thousands of cells, allowing them to detect the electric fields that are generated by all living things. The bill is so sensitive that the platypus can hunt with its eyes, ears and nose closed, relying entirely on the bill’s electrolocation ability.

• Eons ago, platypuses were considerably larger than they are today. In 2013, one of their teeth was discovered that helped researchers to identify a prehistoric platypus more than three feet long … double the size of the current animal.

• Platypuses split from the rest of the earth’s mammals more or less 166 million years ago—but, then, who’s counting? As monotremes, they have a hole that serves as both an anus and a urino-genital opening. Truly weird, this alone may have forced them into social isolation!

• Much like the otter, they prune their thick coats, adding air bubbles that act as insulation in the cool rivers in which they hunt. On land, their short, awkward limbs exert 30 percent more energy than other similarly sized land-based mammals. (Sounds familiar.  Hmmm, could I be a platypus?)

• The platypuses’ beaver-like tails are not used for slapping the water to scare off enemies. Instead the primary function of the tails is to serve as a pantry in which to store up fat, something to which I can relate. Nearly half of the platypuses’ fat is stashed in their behinds in the event there is a food storage. (I, too, use this rationalization for explaining my stored fat.) Additionally, in a pinch their tails can be used as ping-pong paddles. I’m thinking, but am not absolutely sure, that these are called platypaddles.

No matter how much you yearn to own a platypus, I regret to inform you that it is illegal to have one as a pet. Having made that clear, it would be problematic to get one, anyway, because they only live in Australia and Tasmania, a bit of a drive from Austin.

Another reason to not own a platypus is that the venom in the male’s sting can be very dangerous to humans. It may not kill us, but it will cause us to hurt mightily for weeks.

In conclusion, I keep thinking how the platypus, the strangest animal on planet earth, could one day be put to good use. It makes me wonder if Hormel would ever consider making Spam out of prime cuts of platypus meat? Splamtypus?