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Sydney Zoo Plays Platypus Matchmaker

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
January 24, 2005
 
The pride of Sydney's Taronga Zoo, platypus twin girls named Samantha and Binari, find themselves in the same situation of which many Sydney women complain: Try as they might, neither twin can find a good male with which to settle down and have babies.

The puggles, as baby platypuses are called, were born amid much excitement in October 2002. It was only the second time the duck-billed, web-foot mammal had been successfully bred in captivity.

For 20 years attempts at breeding platypuses in captivity had gone astray, for reasons that may sound familiar: The conditions weren't right; the participants didn't get on; or one platypus just wasn't in the mood.

But now the zoo is entering the world of platypus matchmaking as it prepares to try to breed a second-generation platypus in captivity.

Healesville Sanctuary, near Melbourne, has three testosterone-filled male platypuses looking for love but without anyone to give it to.

Taronga Zoo staff plan to send one of its female platypuses, probably Binari, to Healesville in return for a strapping young male named Mac sometime before July.

Margaret Hawkins, a behavioral biologist with the Taronga Zoo, said the "very particular" creatures will be swapped ahead of the breeding season to give them time to adjust.

"Although these animals are probably too young to breed, we want to start the acclimatization process, because we want the animals to get used to each other while we learn about them," Hawkins said.

The long time it took to breed the girls taught Taronga's staff that platypuses are extremely fussy about where they nest and what materials they use.

The female breeding cycle is very short. If conditions are not exactly right on the first attempt, it can be another year before a female platypus is ready to mate again.

Fish, Animal, or Bird?

It is not an exaggeration to say the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is Australia's most curious creature.

When European settlers caught the first specimens in Australia in the late eighteenth century, platypuses were thought to be a hoax: They appeared to be made up of a beak from a duck and a tail from a beaver.

The mammals' egg-laying reproductive system further confused early scientists.

The platypus and the echidna—a nocturnal, burrowing mammal with a spiny coat, long claws, and no teeth—are the only known living members of a type of animal known as monotremes.

The only egg-laying mammals, monotremes are so named because they have a single opening used to both eliminate waste and to reproduce.

Male platypuses have spurs on the inside of their back legs that contain venom similar to that produced by snakes. It is toxic enough to kill a dog.

The burrow-building, nocturnal mammals live in rivers, streams, and lakes on the east coast of Australia. They range from as far north as Cooktown in Northern Queensland to the southern island of Tasmania.

Their exact numbers in the wild are unknown. But the Australian government has classified platypuses as potentially vulnerable, because their habitat is susceptible to human-caused degradation, chiefly through dams, irrigation, and pollution.

Population Crash

The successful breeding of a second generation will hopefully lead towards the establishment of a sustainable captive platypus population.

"While the platypus is not classified as endangered, neither was the Tasmanian devil, which now faces a terrible threat to its future due to an epidemic of fatal facial tumours," Hawkins said.

"We urgently have to learn more about our fascinating Australian fauna so we can intervene if a crisis occurs by supporting the wild population with carefully managed zoo-based breeding programs."

A self-supporting population may also give international zoos the opportunity to have a platypus. Australian laws forbid the export of threatened or endangered native species.

Adam Battaglia has been a keeper at Taronga for the duration of the girls' lives.

For them he has endured a scratch from a cranky male platypus and it will be Battaglia who packs their toiletries and toothpaste for the flight to Victoria.

"We have a specially made transport box built according to her size and weight," Battaglia explained.

"It is made out of timber and lined with something soft so she won't rub her bill or get her claws stuck. It will be dark because they're nocturnal and have wet [burlap] to keep her damp. There are special bars on the outside so it won't bump around."

But neither Battaglia nor Hawkins are pressuring Binari with their hopes for an immediate addition to the zoo's platypus family.

Said Battaglia: "So many things change in the animal world there's no point trying to fix a date on it."

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