Sydney Zoo Plays Platypus Matchmaker

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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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