The platypus

The platypus is such an evolutionarily distinct mammal, making it of exceptional scientific value and an irreplaceable component of national and global biodiversity.

Platypus in the wild

The platypus in Indigenous culture

Aboriginal people have a dreamtime story from the upper reaches of the Darling River of the platypus (McKay et al. 2001), which begins with a young duck who disregarded her tribe’s warning of Mulloka (or Waaway), the water devil. The duck, venturing down the creek far from her tribe, was abducted by Biggoon, a large water-rat who took the duck as his wife. The duck eventually escaped and returned to her tribe, where she laid two eggs that hatched as platypuses. They had soft fur instead of feathers, four webbed feet instead of two, and spurs on their hind legs, like Biggoon’s spear. The duck and her two different children were banished by her tribe, choosing to live far away in the mountains where she could hide from her tribe and Biggoon.

A second dreaming from the upper reaches of the Darling River (McKay et al. 2001) begins with the Ancestor Spirits deciding on totems. The birds, marsupials, and fish each implore the platypus to join their family. After consulting with the echidna, the platypus graciously declines, explaining that it shares traits with all groups and wishes to remain friends with all of them rather than belong to one single group. The platypus commemorates the Great Spirit for making all the animals different and respecting its wisdom.

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is an Australian enigma, one of only five extant species of egg-laying mammals and the only species within the monotreme family Ornithorhynchidae. It is a semi-aquatic mammal, endemic to Australia, exhibiting both reptilian and mammalian characters: egg laying, fur, lactation, venomous spurs, and has electroreception. 

Fur trade

Platypuses were hunted for food by Aboriginal people by digging them from their burrows or spearing them while swimming (Robinson & Plomley 2008). The platypus’ tail is rich in fats may have been particularly important in cold conditions. Europeans hunted platypuses for their fur in the late 19th and early 20th centuries until it was legally protected in all Australian states by 1912.

The platypus was used as an instrument for early colonial naturalists to establish themselves as researchers, bring pride to their nation and outcompete rivals (Robin 2005). After European settlement of Australia, power and recognition were awarded to scientists who made the biggest discoveries to western science (Robin 2005). Relying on the traditional knowledge and skills of indigenous Australians, European researchers captured, killed, exported, and removed eggs from platypuses in the pursuit of scientific advancement (Robin 2005).

The platypus has also been used as a symbol of Australia’s unique culture and national identity (Cushing and Markwell 2009). Live platypuses were gifted to Australia’s wartime allies during the 1940s as diplomatic gestures to strengthen relations and improve morale during difficult times (Cushing and Markwell 2009). The platypus has been used in Australian post-colonial iconography, including featuring on stamps and currency and utilized as a mascot for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (White 2011).