Platypuses (along with echidnas) are the world's only monotremes, or egg-laying mammals.
These elusive creatures are found mainly in rivers on the east coast of Australia – and their western distribution is poorly known. So when staff at Taronga Western Plains Zoo’s Wildlife Hospital received a phone call reporting a sighting of a Platypus in Zoo grounds, they were understandably surprised!
The platypus was discovered by a visitor in a drain at the Zoo last Sunday 7 January – the warmest day for 2018 so far topping 43 degrees in Dubbo. While it’s unknown how the platypus found himself in such an unlikely spot, the team believes he may have come through underground water systems from the nearby Macquarie River. At this time of year, juvenile platypuses are typically emerging from their nursery burrows, and can end up in inappropriate places like puddles in farm paddocks, swimming pools – and even in drains!
The platypus was carefully retrieved and taken to the Wildlife Hospital for a physical examination, revealing he was a male. He weighed in at 1.64 kilograms and measured around 50 centimetres long, and proved to be healthy and well. The last time a platypus has called the Wildlife Hospital home was back in 2012 (a platypus was found on the golf course, not far from the Zoo), so Zoo staff enjoyed the special, rare encounter.
The platypus stayed overnight at the Wildlife Hospital, during which time he enjoyed a feed of yabbies in his temporary, water-filled home. Platypuses are bottom feeders and typically scoop up insects and larvae, shellfish and worms in their duck-like bill.
A platypus’ fur, dark brown on top and tan on their bellies, is thick and waterproof to keep them warm and dry even after hours of swimming. The Wildlife Hospital team were careful to avoid the sharp spur on each ankle - a characteristic of male platypuses. These spurs are connected to a venom gland in each thigh, and they are thought to be used for offence during mate competition.
Once satisfied he was healthy and well, Zoo staff released the special visitor into the Macquarie River on Zoo property the following day (Monday). Platypuses have been spotted here in the past, making it a favourable location for the release. But they are known to be shy creatures, and true to form, the rescued male was careful to venture out into the open and slid quietly into the river. We are hopeful he will live a long and happy life back in his river home.