Platypus, Platypuses, & Platypodes

On this whacky world of ours, a scad of critters compete for the title of most bizarre. The variety of life is so immense that picking one is likely a fool’s chore. Certain faunae (arcane pluralization foreshadowing) objectively qualify for a shortlist of the most bizarre creatures.

One such beast is Australia’s platypus.

When European scientists first encountered Ornithorhynchus anatinus in 1798 and sent a specimen to England for study, researchers believed the entity to be a hoax. Some believed it to be the Frankensteinian creation of a scheming taxidermist. Who could blame them? In their presence was a beaver with a duck’s bill and the feet of an otter. Zoologist and botanist George Shaw used scissors to undo the forgery, only to discover the reality of this eccentric amalgamation.

The odd attributes of the platypus hardly end with its appearance.

A platypus swims in water.
A platypus - photo by Charles J. Sharp
A map showing the range of the platypus in Australia, with the eastern coast highlighted in red and one small part on the southern coast in yellow.
The native range of the platypus - graphic by Tentotwo

Though others exist in the fossil record, the platypus is the only extant member of the family Ornithorhynchidae. Certainly, this uniqueness adds to the alien nature of the animal.

Sometimes called the duck-billed platypus, this critter is one of five living monotremes. One of the defining characteristics of mammals is the process of live birth. The platypus and the echidnas, which comprise the monotremes, are mammals but they aren’t into giving birth to live mini-monotremes. Instead, they lay eggs, just like birds, fish, and reptiles. Unsurprisingly, echidnas likely make the bizarro shortlist, too. We learned they use mucus bubbles to cool their bodies since they lack an inherent cooling system.

The science-fiction mishmash of monotremes doesn’t stop there. These egg-laying mammals love the water and, unlike the constituent “parts” of the platypus (duck, beaver, otter), they contain a shark-like superpower: electrolocation. In murky water, the platypus and echidnas can sense other entities through electrical fields! The platypus sends out electrical signals from its beak, which allows it to “see” other animals.

If a would-be predator somehow evades the electrical senses of the platypus, they have another peculiarity waiting in defense. The animal is one of the few venomous mammals. A spur on the back foot can furnish a rather painful venom. Though the substance cannot kill humans, it can be lethal to animals the size of dogs. The proteins in the venom can cause weeks or months of agony for humans, though, as the affected spot will develop edema (a build-up of fluid) and heightened sensitivity to pain.

Illustration from the first scientific description in 1799 - Frederick Polydore Nodder
A yellow arrow points to the spur on the platypus foot.
Arrow pointing to the venom spur - photo by E. Lonnon

But wait, there’s more!

Unlike other mammals, the platypus sports double cones in its eyes. This attribute is similar to some piscine species, such as the hagfish or lamprey. Scientists currently do not fully understand the function of double cones.

The platypus is a carnivore. It munches on worms, insects, shrimp, and some fish. This fact is the most normal thing we have yet encountered, but the platypus doesn’t disappoint in the diet area, either. The animal has no stomach. Its food goes straight from the mouth to the gut.

When a baby platypus arrives, we call them “puggles.” A strange name, to be sure, but the platypus ups the ante, once again. Puggles, like other mammals, require milk. The platypus does produce milk, but the animal lacks teats. So, the milk oozes through skin pores and gathers in grooves, where the puggles can slurp the sustenance. Scientists have identified a unique protein within platypus milk that might prove to be a boon for humans. Because – of course! – the platypus cannot produce sterile milk, it evolved an antibacterial ringlet protein in the milk to keep babies safe. Researchers dubbed this structure the Shirley Temple protein.

Most mammals procreate thanks to one pair of chromosomes (i.e. X & Y). The platypus couldn’t stand to fit in, so they developed 10 pairs! And, just to continue the trend, some of the Y chromosomes contain the genetics of bird sex chromosomes. Gotta get that bill from somewhere, right?

As if all these characteristics weren’t enough, the platypus has one final showcase left to wow the world.

They glow.

A platypus glows in fluorescent greens, purples, and yellows under UV light.
The glow of the platypus - image by Mammalia 2020

Under ultraviolet light, the brown fur of the platypus glows in fluorescent blues, greens, and purples.

The word platypus means “flat foot.”  It emanates from the Greek word platúpous, which is comprised of platús – “broad” or “flat” – and poús – “foot.” Ornithorhynchus anatinus translates to “duck-like bird-snout.” The genus comes from the Greek words for “bird” and “snout,” while the species derives from the Latin for “duck-like.” This Greek-Latin combination provides a nice segue for the word-nerd portion of the piece.

The discerning reader likely noticed the author relied on particular contrivances to avoid pluralizing “platypus.” What is the proper word for multiple duckbills? Thanks to the many peculiarities of English, no universal answer exists.

The singular ends in “us,” which is typically a Latinized ending. In Latin, this type of termination receives an “i” to denote multiples when the noun is masculine of the second declension. Think radius/radii or alumnus/alumni. Some neuter nouns garner an “a” during pluralization. Opus becomes operacorpus becomes corpora. When moving to English, sometimes we have sullied Latin roots with our plural conventions. For example, we no longer employ stadia for multiple stadiums or campi for many campuses. Getting back to our weird friend, one might expect the choice between numerous duckbills to be platypi or platypuses. However, the previous is not, as they say, a thing. The word Platypuses has become an accepted usage by descriptivists. The other “proper” method is to go the singular-plural duality route of the deer or the moose. Some scientists refer to more than one platypus as many platypus.

But, why not platypi?

We have one more oddity to discern before we bid the platypus “vale!” Though platypus ends in “us” and we explored a variety of ways to deal with Latin “us” pluralizations, we learned the etymology of platypus is Greek, not Latin. The Latinized “us” ending in this case is a debasement of the original Greek ending of “poús.” Therefore, platypi would be a big faux pas to prescriptivists. Instead, the proper pluralization would take the Greek form, becoming platypodes!

Many dictionaries have deemed this expression to be pedantic. Who gets to decide such things? Around here, we feel platypodes more accurately fits the musicality of such a strange creature.

We began this examination with the conceit that no single creature could wear the crown of “world’s weirdest.” Platypodes have done their best to prove us wrong. They might just be the oddest critter on Earth.

It’s practically company policy to finish animal articles with footage of babies. How could one go out any stronger? This notion seems particularly apt for the platypus. In the first video that follows, a guy employs “platypus” as a plural. And just because an entity might be the most bizarre on the planet does not mean its puggles aren’t adorable. Indeed, they are rolly balls of cuteness, even if they will eventually lay eggs, pack venom, lack a stomach, use electricity to see, and glow.

Further Reading and Exploration

platypus – Encyclopedia Britannica

THE PLATYPUS – A VERY SPECIAL AUSTRALIAN – Australian Platypus Conservancy

9 Quirky Facts About the Platypus – Treehugger

Platypuses glow an eerie blue-green under UV light – Live Science

platypus (n.) – Etymonline

Plural form of words ending in -us – Wikipedia

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