Where to spot an elusive platypus
The Australian platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is an odd-looking mammal of mixed features that was considered a hoax when first settlers sent one back to England. It has a body like an otter, a broad flat tail like a beaver, flipper like webbed feet on short limbs, and a bill a bit like a duck. To top off its unusual visual appearance – it lays eggs! It is one of only 5 monotremes, another Australian monotreme with the echidna (also found locally). Platypus are between 35- 60 centimetres long and males are 800-3000 grams and females are 600-1700 grams. These animals are solitary though a number of platypuses may live a stretch of water.
These small semi-aquatic animals live in creeks, ponds and rivers along the east coast of Australia, from Cooktown in north Queensland down to Tasmania. Their two layered dense fur keeps them warm and dry; the front webbed feet propel them through the water, the semi-webbed hind feet act like rudders and brakes; and the tail serves as a stabiliser and stores fat reserves. They are ungainly on land, dig holes with the aid of strong claws, and the male has a 12mm long venomous spur on each hind leg ankles. This venom causes excruciating pain followed by an increased sensitivity to pain however it is not deadly.
Platypus feed in both the slow and rapidly moving sections of creeks and rivers and seem to like feeding in areas of coarse gravel and rock river beds. The prefer stretches of water that are shaded by natural vegetation with logs, branches and roots to shelter amongst and earth banks to burrow in. They spend most of the day in short burrows. Platypus eat mainly at early in the morning, at dusk and night times, feeding for between 10-12 hours on fish eggs, worms, insects, crustaceans, molluscs, and tadpoles, plus larvae of caddisflies, mayflies, two-winged flies and shrimps. It amazes me that they don’t look for their food, instead, they close their eyes, nose and ears to feed on the bottom of the riverbed, using only its very sensitive bill that has both pressure and electro-receptors to find food. After around 30 seconds (but up to 2 minutes) under water they come to the surface to lie on their back to eat their bounty stored in their cheek pockets.
Both males and females are reproductive from 2-4 years. The female lay 1-3 eggs in the specially prepared long burrow with wet nesting material, curling up and around the eggs coddled between the tail and belly for 10 days and then feeding the hatched ‘puggles’ from two furry wet milk patches on her abdomen for 3-4 months. The puggles do not emerge from the burrow until they have reached 75% of adult size.
This ‘Nearly Threatened’ species is protected by legislation across all states. There is little concrete evidence of predators though these are thought to include: large pythons, goannas, crocodiles (North Queensland), eagles, large fish, dingoes and introduced foxes and dogs. The platypus is especially vulnerable on land.
Being light to dark brown in colour they are well camouflaged in the local rivers due to suspended sediment so to spot a platypus look out for:
- 3 bumps in the water (head, back and tail)
- a small bow wave as it cuts smoothly through the water
- a spreading concentric ring of ripples suggests a platypus has just dived underwater so patiently wait up to two minutes whilst it collects food as it will need to come up for air and to eat on the surface
- bubbles which may indicate there is a platypus underwater collecting food.
The best locations:
- the Platypus Viewing Area, a short (900m) 15-minute walk from town on a well-kept concrete pathway. This pathway starts at the bridge, goes behind the Riverside Shopping Precinct and along the river. Keep going past the Beersheba Museum and just around the bend is the viewing area.
- along the Obi Obi Boardwalk take a short walk along this shaded pathway which is a mix of boardwalk, concrete and gravel sections. One entrance is on Coral Street opposite Bicentenary Lane and is well signposted. The other entrance is within the Maleny Show Grounds.
Mark and I had the pleasure of seeing a couple of platypuses going about their business when on holiday in Tasmania. We quietly watched a stretch of water well known for platypus and were not disappointed. However, we have never seen one in Maleny – not because we have gone looking and not found one, but we are not usually in town at the right time of day.
So, grab a Maleny Trail Map from the Maleny Tourist Information Centre (also part of the Maleny Community Centre) and hopefully you will be blessed with a platypus sighting.