The Earth used to be one mega supercontinent, known as Pangaea. 200 million years ago (or so) this humongous chunk of land started to split up as Africa, South America, Antarctica, India, and Australia broke away to form a new chunk known as Gondwana. 50 million years later, Gondwana broke apart even further, and voila! The landmass that we now know as Australia was born!
Millions and millions of years of natural selection and evolution without influences from other habitats led to the development of a unique ecosystem Down Under. In fact, more than 80% of all the plants and animals native to the continent can only be found in Australia. (Click HERE to learn more!)
One of said animals is the platypus, a monotreme (egg laying) carnivorous mammal that is also venomous.
Seeing a platypus became a bit of an obsession of mine after hearing the tale of multiple sightings of one by the Hobart rivulet. Despite daily walks along the banks where this alleged platypus played, the odds of me catching a glimpse weren’t good.
Not only is my vision embarrassingly bad, even with my contacts in, but my eye to brain coordination is even worse. When I turn a corner, look at a piece of art, or watch a movie, my brain furiously gets to work taking in the scene, pondering the “whys” and “hows” while putting it into context of the bigger world. Details? Maybe I catch a few. But my brain usually is elsewhere.
Here’s an example of the chaos my brain goes through.
I’m on a hike and a turn in the bend reveals a massive tree.
- Holy shit that’s a big tree!
- How old is it?
- It must have been growing for a loooooooong time.
- Wait… how does a tree even grow? Does it shed it’s bark like a snake? Or is it like the human skeletal system?
- Do other people think about how trees grow?
- Wait…. How many other people have looked at this very same tree in this very same spot?
- Are my thoughts and experiences unique, or, as Yuval Noah Harari suggestions in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, am I just wildly insignificant?
- I’m here pondering this tree, but why do I care? Why does it matter? What am I gaining?
For all I know there’s kookaburra riding a wombat fighting off a Tasmanian Devil to my left. But I’m too wrapped up in a tree-induced existential crisis to notice.
So the odds of me catching sight of a sly platypus bopping around a river are pretty slim.
The solution? Drive 3 hours to The Platypus House on the northern tip of Tasmania!
The Platypus House is a center that was created to “advance public awareness and understanding about the magic of monotremes.” They rescue and rehabilitate both platypuses (yes the plural is platypuses, not platypi) and Echidnas, and they offer educational tours with a chance to meet the animals.
Let’s Start with the Platypus:
The platypus is an egg laying semi-aquatic mammal native to eastern Australian, and the best way to describe it is if a duck, lizard, beaver, and otter all had a baby that was injected with snake venom as a fetus, giving the males the ability to stab and kill predators. Sounds crazy? Well it is!
Here are the fun takeaways I learned:
- The male platypus has stingers on it’s back webs, which are poisonous. The poison attacks the nerves as oppose to a poison that travels through the blood stream (like in snakes), so you could be in pain for the rest of your life. Each platypus has a unique venom, meaning it’s impossible to develop and antidote.
- The platypuses skeleton looks reptilian, and the pelvic girdle is flipped, meaning their back legs are “backwards” compared to mammals.
- The platypus bill has electroreceptors, which give it the ability to sense electric fields produced by surrounding life. This allows the platypus to find tasty insects, shrimp, crayfish and other small animals swimming around.
- Female platypuses don’t have nipples. They nurse their young from mammory gland ducts on the abdomen.
- On land, platypuses retract their webbing to reveal claws in order to protect the webbing from ripping.
- Platypuses don’t have teeth, so they scoop up gravel to help them crunch up their food.
- Platypuses are very territorial. Jupiter, the only male at the Platypus house, was taken to The Platypus House because he kept on getting tangled up in the nets of the fisheries in Hobart. Upon being released all the way up in Beauty Point, he made his way back down to his Hobart territory in just 3 weeks!
- Platypuses recognize each other. A female in a nearby tank, Dawn, has quite the love affair with Jupiter. All the different areas are connecting with pathways, and sometimes Dawn with slip on over to Jupiter’s area to say a cheeky hello. I thought that was cute.
Now on to the Echidnas:
The second part of the Platypus House tour involved a visit with three echidnas. An Echidna is kind of like what you would get if a porcupine, kangaroo, and lizard got together and had a baby. Like it’s fellow Platypus monotreme, the Echidna also lays eggs and has a backwards pelvic girdle.
Edward, Edwina and Thomas happily greeted us at the door, knowing food would soon follow. We all sat on the floor and our Platypus House guide put bowls of some sort of termite mixture in front of us so we could get up close and personal as she explained the fascinating creatures.
- Echidnas can live as long as 50 years.
- Like platypuses, Echidnas don’t have nipples. In fact, it’s so hard to tell the difference between males and females that Edward is a female and Edwina is a male because it took months for The Platypus House experts to figure out the sex.
- Echidnas form mating trains (I can’t help but imagine a cute Echidna conga line) which involves a whole line of males traveling behind the female until she is ready to mate. Then they push each other out of the way until one remains.
- Their tongues can get up to 6 inches long, which they use lap up insects out of the ground and out of logs.
- Echidnas can even take down giant huntsmen spiders by crushing the arachnids with their claws, then they lick up the innards.
- When threatened, Echidnas will burry themselves under ground with just the spines poking out. Don’t try to dig them up, because it will likely kill the creatures!
Was it worth the trip?
While The Platypus House is a bit of trek from Hobart, we combined the trip with a visit to Launceston, a hike around Cataract Gorge, and a cheeky wine tasting from a Tamar Valley vineyard, which made for a full day of exploring.
Both the platypus and echidna are animals that are foreign to my North American upbringing, and it was fascinating to see the monotremes up close while learning cool, fun facts. What can I say? I’m a total nerd!
The best part? Now I can carry on with daily existential crisis over trees without worrying about missing a platypus sighting.
Hungry for more Tasmanian adventures?
The Huon Valley is southwest of Hobart, Tasmania,, and it makes for the perfect day trip. From great eats to the Tahune Airwalk, I lay out our latest Sunday Funday adventure.
Beer Paddles and Cheese Platters with a Side of Honesty Box Bread: A Guide to What to Eat on Bruny Island, Tasmania
Bruny Island is the perfect escape from Hobart. While you go for the sweeping coastal views and beautiful nature, don’t miss these 4 hospitality venues!
What is life like in Tasmania? I’m adjusting to my “new normal”, eating great food, and getting to know a new culture. Read all about it here!
Hungry for more wildlife?
Why are so many humans afraid of bugs and spiders? I dive into what the research says and share my personal account of an epic battle with a New York City cockroach.