2 Egg-Laying Mammals Living Down Under: Part 2 (Platypus)

I hope you enjoyed exploring the TOP 5 COOL ECHIDNA FACTS last week. This week, we shall take a look at the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), which is also an egg-layer and a native to Australia.  It is also sometimes called a Duck-billed Platypus. Personally, I have never seen a Platypus in flesh before! Not in the wild or in the zoo. But strangely enough, everyone else I know has seen one at some point in their lives.

The closest I came to encountering one was in 2012 when I was on a first field trip for my studies. On the second day, we were brought out to the river to look for Platypus. You can only imagine my excitement. I was over the moon! For three hours, we sat still with not even the slightest peep on the damp grounds as my eyes scanned the water surface like a crazy woman. Three hours later, I found myself with a bladder full of wee and a severely cramped bum, but no sighting of a Platypus 😦 No matter, I am very determined to keep trying. Hopefully one day, this magic moment will happen to me too. And if you have seen one, please share your story in the comments as I would love to hear about it.

Platypus swimming in the water
Platypus swimming with nostrils slightly sticking out of water


Now, for the TOP 5 COOL FACTS about the Platypus:

Best of many worlds
The Platypus: Best of many worlds

(1) Platypus pack a venomous punch

The male Platypus has two spurs which secretes venom. Each spur is about 12-18mm long and made of keratin (same substance as our hair and nails) located on its inner hind ankles. They resemble the size and shape of a dog’s canine tooth. Venom is secreted when a Platypus fights with other male rivals to demonstrate dominance or when it feels threatened. The venom is supplied from a venom gland (known as the crural gland) located in the upper leg, and it is produced when the male reaches maturity. The venom is potent enough to kill a small animal and can cause severe swelling and pain to humans lasting for weeks. The Platypus secretes more venom during the breeding season in spring than other times of the year. Females also bear false spurs, but lose them as they grow older.

(2) No need for eyesight when you have electroreceptors

A fold of skin covers a Platypus’s eyes and ears when they submerge underwater to find for prey like yummy shrimps, worms and larvae. Instead, the Platypus relies on its 40,000 electroreceptors located on its soft and leathery bill to detect the living prey underwater. Once the Platypuses scoop up their prey, they store them in their cheek and eat them when they surface.

(3) Best of many worlds

When you look at a Platypus, its odd outer appearance immediately strikes you. Positively of course. When you take a closer look at a picture of a Platypus, it looks like a mishmesh of three different animals: bill and webbed feet like a duck, body and fur like an otter and tail like a beaver. In the water, its front feet has a broad expanse of skin acting as a great pair of paddles while the hind feet acts as a rudder navigating it in the direction of the prey. When on ground, the Platypus folds away the webbing neatly under the feet making it easier to walk and dig burrows.

Paddle like front legs in water
Paddle like front legs in water

(4) Milk from skin patches

A clutch of between 1 to 3 leathery shelled eggs is laid about 2 to 3 weeks following successful mating.  The female incubates the eggs for about 10 days by clasping them between her tail and belly as she lies on the side (or back). The female Platypus does not have any nipples or a pouch. Milk is secreted from two round skin patches onto the female’s tummy fur which is very rich in fats, about six times more than a cow’s milk. The Platypus young are nursed for up to 3 to 4 months until they are ready to swim.

(5) Platypuses have their very own tick species!

Yes that’s right! The tick species is known as Ixodes ornithorhynchi. The ticks are most prolific around the Platypus’s lower hind legs as this area is hard to get to for grooming. There are also found in other areas of its body like the fur and front legs, but are found in much smaller numbers.

Hope you enjoyed the TOP 5 Cool Platypus Facts 🙂 Now, a short visual treat (less than 4 minutes) with more information about the Platypus:

For Further Reading:
(1) Australian Platypus Conservancy
(2) Australian Museum: Platypus

Photo/Video Credits:
(1) Header: Trevira1 / Foter / CC BY-NC
(2) Platypus swimming in water: 0ystercatcher / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
(3) Platypus in water: Stefan Kraft / Foter / CC BY-SA
(4) Paddle feet: niallkennedy / Foter / CC BY-NC
(5) Video: National Geographic YouTube channel

2 Egg-Laying Mammals Living Down Under: Part 1 (Echidna)

All mammals give birth to live young right? Well, not quite. Mammals are divided into two subclasses based on their reproductive systems: ‘monotremes’ (egg-laying mammals) and ‘therians’ (mammals which give birth to live young). ONLY five egg-laying mammal species currently exist on our planet, one platypus species and four echidna species. In Australia we have two species, the ‘Platypus’ and the ‘Short-beaked Echidna’. The other three are the Long-beaked Echidna species found in New Guinea.

While there are many cool stuff about these weird and wonderful creatures, I have decided to list a Top 5 about our local aussies: the Short-beaked Echidna and the Platypus. This week we shall enjoy reading about the Short-beaked Echidna and  next week, we shall visit the curious looking Platypus 🙂

Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

Short-beaked Echidna
Short-beaked Echidna

Echidnas are widely distributed in a variety of landscapes throughout Australia. These light brown spiny animals are quiet, extremely shy and tend to keep to themselves making it hard to spot them in the wild. The echidnas over in Tasmania are much darker, almost black in colour. They weigh between 2 to 7 kg and love feasting on ants and termites. After a successful mating season, a female lays a single soft and leathery egg, and incubates it in her pouch which takes about ten days to hatch.

In the past, the only way I had spotted them was when I heard some scratches coming from the shrubs or behind some rocks, or when a brave one decided to cross a busy country highway for reasons unknown. Sadly, echidnas crossing the highways sometimes end up as roadkill. Seeing any roadkill is hard enough, but seeing an echidna roadkill always evokes strong reactions from me (crying mostly). I simply love them with all my heart. This is why for so many years and for many more to come, whenever I go bushwalking, the first sentence which departs my lips will always be, “Oh my gosh, I hope to see an echidna today!”.

Without further ado, here are the TOP 5 COOL Echidna facts:

(1) Echidnas use electroreceptors to detect living things

In addition to their keen sense of smell, Short-beaked Echidnas have 400 electroreceptors concentrated on the tip of their snout. This helps them to detect the electromagnetic signals emitted by living things (electrolocation) such as ants and termites giving them a good tummy full of feed. The Western Long-beaked Echidna  has about 2000 electroreceptors on its snout. Electroreceptors are quite exclusive to aquatic animals such as sharks as water acts as a great signal conductor, making this land dwelling mammal an exception (other exceptions include bees and cockroaches).

Searching for some feed on a rotting log
Searching for some food on a rotting log

(2) No nipples here!

Yes, echidnas have NO nipples. The female echidna secretes milk from milk patches found within her pouch. The milk is secreted from up to 150 pores onto special hair follicles which is then happily consumed by the puggle (baby echidna).

Echidna puggle
Echidna puggle – Such a precious looking thing.

(3) Hop on the love train

Forget a one male one female courtship rituals! During an echidna’s breeding season, a train of up to 10 males is formed behind a single female. Males line up nose to tail forming the train which can last up to a month or more. During this time, male echidnas can hop off or on in the line anytime they want. Of course, the one who persevere the longest is most likely to stay ahead of the game. When the female becomes receptive, the males dig a trench around her, then begins some jostling action for the ultimate mating right!

(4) One opening does it all

The cloaca is a single opening in an echidna serving multiple purposes. Through this one opening, echidnas urinate, defecate, lay eggs and receive sperm. This anatomical feature is common in reptiles and amphibians.

(5) Echidnas have a four-headed penis

I saved the best for last of course 🙂 Before I started writing this, I had NO idea about this. Male echidnas possess a four-headed penis. Each head extends like a stumpy finger with no nails. I saw some pictures of it and to me it looks like a shiny pink heart valve of sorts. It was strange and fascinating at the same time, if this makes any sense at all! It is believed that this gives them a competitive edge during mating season due to the high competition with so many males lining up for one female. Apparently only two of the penis heads function at any one time, while the other two tuck away waiting for their turn. I also found out that the male’s sperm travels in a bundle (like a pack) making it travel much faster, thus increasing the chances of his offspring making it to the next generation. These facts bring mating competition to a completely different level! Phew!

For further information and pictures about the echidna’s reproductive organ, click here

Did you know?

Unlike the ‘least concern’ conservation status of the Short-beaked Echidna in Australia, all three of the Long-beaked Echidna species found in New Guinea have been listed as ‘critically endangered’ in the IUCN Red list due to severe habitat loss and hunting (for meat).

Western Long-beaked Echidna
Western Long-beaked Echidna

I hope you enjoyed reading this! Till next week for top 5 cool facts on the Platypus. I shall leave you with this really nice short clip about echidnas which I found.

Photo credits:
Short-beaked Echidna: David Cook Wildlife Photography / FoterCC BY-NC
Echidna foraging around log: cskk / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Puggle: ibsut / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Header: Nuytsia@Tas / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Video Credit: NatGeoWild channel on youtube.

Endangered Birds: The Final Day of the Oystercatcher Diary.

Last Saturday, I volunteered to guard a pair of endangered Pied Oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris) nesting on a beach in the Royal National Park, New South Wales (Australia). Before this, I had never heard of this species or neither did I know how they looked like. But that does not matter, does it? Google solved this problem fairly quickly for me. Ultimately, it was about giving this pair a chance to make it as this season’s new parents.

Please Note: The Pied Oystercatcher has been listed as 'endangered' under Schedule 1 of the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 in New South Wales, Australia.
Pied oystercatcher
Pied Oystercatcher

My shift was for two hours over a long weekend in Sydney with soaring temperatures welcoming the arrival of summer. Apart from a few blood boiling incidents, everything went pretty smoothly. I loved being there and contributing in this tiny way in the hope that 125 might become 127 at the end of this nesting season. So I put my hand up for another shift in the coming week Saturday. Before I go any further, here’s some background information.

While out on a walk, this endangered pair of Pied Oystercatchers were spotted by a local resident nesting in the middle of the beach. This was a defining moment as Pied Oystercatchers have not nested in this area in the last 20 years! Unfortunately, the location of their choice had some challenges. There are a handful of residential houses, a kayak hire outlet and a camping ground around the corner. Warmer temperatures over a long weekend meant a high influx of people from all over to frolic on the beach. Then, there was the problem with dogs. Dogs are not allowed in National Parks in Australia. So, what on earth were they doing here? Worst still, many were not even on leads. If you asked the owners, simple answer was, “Oh, I didn’t know!”. Most of them reacted well and took responsibility for their slight overlook, but not all of them did.

With help from the local council, a fence using metal stakes and strings had been erected around the oystercatchers’ nesting area. In addition, big sign boards and an interpretive signage were placed along the shoreline parallel to the fence line which politely asked for everyone’s cooperation to kindly refrain from standing and staring or getting too close. Well, this was not sufficient to keep away the over enthusiastic lingering photographers, curious dogs, or beach-goers stopping to take a closer look at the father oystercatcher braving temperatures as high as 35°C to protect his two precious eggs. This species are shy and avoid close contact with other species leading them to often leave their nest exposing the eggs to all sorts of elements.

Ever since my time at the beach last Saturday, all I could think about was the eggs. I often wondered what must be going through the pair’s mind. Do they know how important it is to make it, to have that fighting chance to remain just that much longer on this planet. I simply don’t know. I monitored their progress daily through the diary updates diligently provided by a dedicated local who single-handedly coordinated this whole show (including the volunteer rosters) watching the nesting pair from dawn to dusk. Each uneventful day met with the loudest sigh of relief from me, until three days ago.

I was at work when an email arrived in my inbox with the subject ‘Oystercatcher Diary – Final Day’. This confused me. Wait a minute! Final day? How could that be? I thought there were a couple more weeks to go. As I started reading the content, I could feel my heart breaking. Feral foxes got the last word. The diary update described how the oystercatchers called all morning, and then with one final call flew off into the horizon. Inconsiderate people, dogs running loose, high temperatures, bad location… but alas, it was a feral species that ended this watch.

Due to my previous work and studies, I am well aware of the problems feral foxes pose in Australia. It is not an easy problem to solve, neither is it cheap. Incidents like this only drives home the point of the absolute urgency of getting this problem under control before we lose any more precious wildlife. Because in my world, the word I hate most is ‘EXTINCTION’. Don’t you think it’s about time we make this word extinct?

Photo credit (Header): BotheredByBees / Foter / CC BY
Photo credit (Pied Oystercatcher): Foter / GNU Free Documentation License

Life out of Balance: Is “Personal Conservation” the Answer?

Guest blog by Deniz Ortac

Every person who carries a feeling of deep compassion for nature has, at some point, had some sort of an insight. I had one as an early teenager when I watched a stunning documentary from 1982, called “Koyaanisqatsi”. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” originates from the Hopi language and means “Crazy Life” or “Life out of Balance”. The film’s fusion of image and sound spoke more than a thousand words, featuring the stark contrasts between natural beauty and human frenzy.

Since childhood I have always been in love with nature and more recently, through my partner’s work, have become a strong admirer of conservation efforts all around the world. The conservation industry is blessed with what other industries can only dream of – passionate and incredibly driven people with a deep urge to make a difference. Many conservation projects have gone to great lengths and have shown amazing successes in protecting some of the world’s most beautiful and valuable natural assets (and Geetha’s blog is a fantastic tribute to that!).

But many conservation projects, despite their important and truly inspirational work, focus on treating symptoms instead of underlying causes. Just like some charities have a vision of, one day, becoming redundant (because the issue they address has been resolved), wouldn’t it be the greatest achievement if conservation is also, one day, no longer needed? Why haven’t we achieved this yet? What are the invisible forces that seem to start a new fire for each one that has just been put out after a hard-fought, gruelling battle? What are conservationists ultimately up against?

I recently stumbled upon a quote (from the recent documentary with the title Planetary) that may shed some light:

“Today we have not only an ecological crisis; we also have a kind of story crisis. That is to say there is something very wrong about the way that we understand who we are and our relationship with the Earth.”

This resonated strongly with me and immediately reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten that we are part of this amazingly complex and interwoven system, and whatever harm we do to it, we ultimately do to ourselves. Technology and a seemingly vast abundance of resources have given us the illusion of being a separate entity; that we can somehow bend the laws of biophysics and get away with it. During a time when most people now live in cities, the causal link between our choices and their impact on the natural environment is becoming harder to recognise.

In my personal life, the story crisis is most evident in the reactions I get when speaking about this, even with the people close to me – friends and family. I am always conscious of that awkward moment when my counterpart suddenly stares at some invisible point above my head, with eyes clouded in a mixture of confusion and disinterest.

Yet it is clear to me that our ecological crisis cannot be solved without tackling our story crisis. For our story to change, conservation needs to engage a broader range of people and involve them in new ways that trigger personal reflection, ultimately shifting perceptions and consciousness. In essence, the task is to take the average consumer and turn them into “personal conservationists”. And this is about people like you and me; the choices we make every day. Ultimately, it is these simple choices that matter the most. Their impacts are real but occur too far away from us, and are therefore commonly ignored by our busy and preoccupied minds. Let’s be honest: nature, wildlife, and the environment more broadly, are not at the top of most people’s mind when, say, accepting a plastic bag in the supermarket which may end up in our oceans. Why? Because we have lost touch with nature and, perhaps more importantly, with ourselves. So the question I ask myself quite often is: How can we get our story right? How can we re-connect and become better at personal conservation?

Last year I had the opportunity to explore this question in more depth during a fellowship program at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership (CSL) in Sydney. Over the course of eight months, I was fortunate enough to meet 24 other fellows who had vastly different backgrounds but were grappling with similar types of questions. In weekly seminars featuring high-calibre guest speakers, and three residential retreats, we explored many aspects of creating change for a more sustainable place.

Part of the CSL program was a sustainability project to be undertaken by small groups. Our group chose to look at exactly that question – how can people re-connect to nature? It became clear to us pretty quickly that “immersion” was key – the idea that connection happens when people get repeated, meaningful and positive exposure.

Physically spending more time in nature would do a wealth of things to the story we tell ourselves and to the people close to us. Have you noticed how perception of time slows down in nature? Your body relaxes, your breathing deepens. Suddenly all your senses are engaged. You start listening to the sounds, taking in the smells and letting the eyes wander through the landscape in respectful awe. As you become more and more mindful, curiosity sets in. You start asking questions a child might ask. This is the mental zone in which nature connection happens and personal conservation gets activated.

Nature at its best (Photo by Deniz Ortac)

I am personally convinced that conservation has a big role to play in facilitating this sort of immersion approach. Citizen Science, for instance, is a great example for involving communities, not by “raising awareness” but by getting people involved in conservation while increasing their exposure to nature. True, Citizen Science is likely to attract people who are already tuned into nature. But if conservation can find ways to reach a broader range of people, then maybe, one day, we will have many more personal conservationists contributing to a world in which life on Earth is finally back in balance.

Meet my guest blogger, Deniz!

Deniz Ortac

Deniz is currently involved in multiple projects related to more sustainable transport options at Transport for NSW, and is also volunteering at Circular Economy Australia. Initially trained in Economics, he recently completed a Master of Environmental Management at the Institute of Environmental Studies (UNSW). He also completed a fellowship program at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership last year, after which he completed a conservation volunteer program on an African nature reserve.

Watch the full “Koyaanisqatsi” movie.