Is it a mammal or a reptile? And why does it have a bill like a duck and a tail like a beaver? When the first platypus specimens were brought to England from Australia in 1798, scientists thought they were a hoax. They’d been fooled before by concocted “mermaid” specimens from Asia and that wasn’t going to happen twice. But eventually credible observations and research proved the reality of this bewildering creature.
Sadly, many Australians have never seen a platypus in the wild. Part of that is attributable to their range being limited to the eastern states and Tasmania. Even many residents of those states have never encountered this duck-billed curiosity. Being a fly-fisherman means I spend a lot of time in Tasmanian creeks and rivers. That’s led me to frequent platypus encounters. On one occasion, a platypus was digging for food in the riverbed almost right at my feet. Last year, in a tiny little headstream creek I met my first baby platypus. He could have fit in the palm of my hand. So platypuses aren’t as rare as you might think – it’s just a matter of being in the right place.
Eventually scientists classified platypuses as mammals. However, they were placed in a special category known as monotremes. The only other monotreme is the echidna, another Aussie oddity. Monotremes have one opening used for both reproduction and elimination of waste. This opening is called a cloaca, similar to birds. From this cloaca, again like birds, platypuses lay eggs about the size of an acorn. However, unlike birds, platypuses nurse their young with milk like mammals.
The features of the platypus get even stranger. It’s one of just a few venomous mammals. The male platypus has a spur on its back legs that it uses to inject venom. While no humans are known to have died from a platypus encounter, there are dogs that have met their demise in this way. Regardless, getting spurred by a platypus is reportedly an intensely painful experience. So, unless you can definitively tell a male apart from a female, resist that temptation to lift a furry platypus out of the water!
And what about that duck bill? If you have a close encounter with a platypus, you’ll see that it’s covered in pores. These pores are electro-sensitive. When small prey move along the riverbed, they create electric currents with their muscles. Platypuses have eyes, but they’re closed underwater. Instead, they use their electro-sensitive duck bills to not only find their way around, but also to find their food.
There’s one type of person for whom the platypus is the most perplexing: the evolutionist. They just don’t know what to do with this animal. It has some features like a bird, others like a reptile, and others like a mammal. How did it evolve? Where are the transitional forms in the fossil record? Evolutionists at first believed it to be a “primitive” animal representing a living transitional form between reptiles and mammals. But when research uncovered the electro-sensitive pores in their bills, they had to conclude that it was, in fact, “highly evolved.” Yet they find platypus specimens in the fossil record which they allege date back millions of years. Research into the platypus genome has uncovered even more perplexities for evolutionists.
For a Bible-believing Christian, the platypus is an amazing example of our God’s creative imagination. Though he often appears to have used templates for creating certain animal groups, he decided to do something quite different with the platypus, giving it an electro-sensitive duck-bill, webbed front feet, venomous spurs on the hind feet, egg-laying, and a beaver-like tail. It’s almost as if God meant to create something unconventional just to leave us scratching our tiny human heads. Beyond perplexed, surely he meant to leave us in wonder at his playful artistry.