The platypus is a truly unusual creature in multiple ways, one of many storied and whimsical-looking animals originating in Australia. While people familiar in passing with the platypus often cite its awkward "duck-billed" appearance as its most eminent trait, or take note of how the platypus lays eggs, a lesser-known characteristic of platypuses is that they are one of the few mammals that are venomous.
As luck would have it, however, platypus poison can actually be of beneficial use to humans as it may prove useful in the treatment of diabetes mellitus. Still, as strangely cute as some people find them, a pet platypus would perhaps not the best idea.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
In addition to the other details that make the platypus such a curious creature, the platypus is one of the few mammals known to produce venom – delivered through a stinger on the hind leg known as a platypus' spur. This venom is only produced by the male platypus, and is used not for defense but for competing with other males for mating rights. While platypus venom can be lethal to dogs and other animals, in humans it generally results in pain, swelling, and a sensitivity to pain: curiously, however, platypus venom may be useful in the treatment of diabetes.
Overview of the Platypus
The platypus is in the monotreme group of mammals, meaning that they are egg-laying mammals. (The other two groups of mammals are marsupials and placentals.) Only two types of monotremes survive today, the other being the echnidae, or spiny anteaters.
The platypus is confined today to freshwater streams in eastern Australia, though it once enjoyed a wider range. Females prepare to lay eggs by burrowing into riverbanks heavy in vegetation. Because their young are born in these de facto burrows, zoologists know very little about how the young are actually raised as it is not possible to observe newborns without severely disrupting this physical arrangement.
Platypuses hunt for food underwater but do not actually eat there. They store insects, crustaceans and other sources of meat in their cheeks and return to the surface before consuming them. Platypus feet are flat; in fact, their name comes from the Latin for "flat foot."
Platypus Venom Details
Like egg-laying, venom production is a very rare trait among mammals, being otherwise restricted mainly to snakes, spiders, insects and certain marine creatures. Only male platypuses produce venom. In humans, this venom causes pain and swelling, increased sensitivity to pain in general (called hyperalgesia), hyperventilation, low blood oxygen and convulsions, depending on the dose received. Dog fatalities as a result of platypus stings have been documented. While the chemical composition of platypus poison has been duly analyzed, it is unclear exactly what components of the venom create which physical symptoms in sting victims.
The platypus stinger is located – more oddities ahead! – on a heel spur on the male's hindlegs. The main purpose of a platypus' spur is not defense against other animals, but fighting with other males for the "right" to mate with a given female. As a result, platypus venom is only produced during breeding season, and outside of that season the male platypus rarely if ever uses its spur.
The Platypus and Diabetes
In 2018, researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia discovered that a metabolic hormone found in the venom and digestive tract of platypuses, called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), has the potential to treat type II diabetes, also called non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or NIDDM. This hormone, which helps lower blood sugar, is also secreted in humans, but the form secreted in platypus venom is more resistant to being degraded by enzymes in the human body and thus shows therapeutic promise.
- University of California Museum of Paleontology: Monotremata: Life History & Ecology
- Stanford University: The Poison in the Platypus
- University of Adelaide: Platypus Venom Inspires Potential New Diabetes Treatments
- Genome Research: Defensins and the convergent evolution of platypus and reptile venom genes
About the Author
Kevin Beck holds a bachelor's degree in physics with minors in math and chemistry from the University of Vermont. Formerly with ScienceBlogs.com and the editor of "Run Strong," he has written for Runner's World, Men's Fitness, Competitor, and a variety of other publications. More about Kevin and links to his professional work can be found at www.kemibe.com.