The Perplexing Platypus

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.

The Protective Plover

Australia is famous for its diverse wildlife wanting to kill you.  Even the birds get in on the action.  In certain regions the Australian magpie (no relation to the Canadian bird) will swoop at humans, at times with deadly consequences.  A five-month old baby recently died when her mother stumbled while trying to avoid a swooping magpie in Brisbane.  Thankfully, the magpies here in Tasmania are much milder mannered – they don’t swoop.  However, things are quite different when it comes to our plovers.

Ornithologists call them masked lapwings, but most Aussies just call them plovers.  For North American readers, just imagine a large killdeer with a bad temper at certain times of the year.  In our Launceston neighbourhood they’re prolific.  You can’t avoid them, even though at times you desperately want to.

I’d nominate them as Tasmania’s most dangerous bird.  Though they’re sometimes hard to see from a distance, plovers have a black-tipped yellow spur on the carpal joint of their wings.  And they’re not afraid to use these spiky little weapons.  Swooping magpies just have their beaks; plovers intimidate with beaks and spurs – doubly dangerous.

Most of the year plovers are harmless.  They just go about their business feasting on worms and insects.  At such times their only fault is their awful sound.  Australian magpies have a beautiful throaty call, but plovers sound like a malfunctioning home alarm.

However, when the winter solstice rolls around in the antipodes (June 21), plovers become unhinged.  The solstice usually marks the beginning of their breeding season.  The problems begin with where the females choose to lay their eggs, which is just about anywhere.  A few weeks ago I was on my normal daily walk route.  I rounded a corner on a sidewalk and there, right next to the sidewalk on the grass, was a female plover sitting on her eggs.  She started squawking at me, the male started squawking at me, and I made a hasty retreat to the other side of the street.  I don’t mess with plovers.   

In the weeks following, I knew to avoid that spot.  In that instance, a predator appears to have eventually raided the nest – I never saw any chicks.  But it’s when the chicks hatch that things really start to get out of control.  In another spot on my daily walk route, plovers have been nesting regularly each year.  This year they initially had four chicks hatch.  At the moment, they’re down to one.  The other three haven’t survived – probably due to cats, but we also have a goshawk in the vicinity, as well as some falcons.  But with that one chick, that pair of plovers will protect it with their lives.  A nest is static – it stays in one spot; but chicks are mobile and you never know where they’re going to be from day to day.  If you come anywhere near a plover chick, the parents only give you a couple of warning squawks before the aggressive aerial attack begins.  I’ve been attacked several times, always by accidentally coming across chicks and their parents, and I can tell you it’s the kind of experience which requires a change of undergarments afterwards.  They’ve never made contact, but it’s still a terrifying ordeal.

Plovers seem insane about protecting their young, their most vulnerable.  I often think about their instinct to do whatever it takes to make sure their chicks survive, even before they hatch. They’ll even resort to violence to protect the next generation.  But then are others of God’s creatures which resort to violence to destroy the next generation.  So many tiny helpless human beings are being brutally destroyed in the womb each day.  The human parents who are supposed to protect them fail.  Plovers may appear insane with their protective instincts, but I’d propose that it’s actually humans who are insane with their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our species.  And unlike plovers who have no moral responsibility for their violent instincts, we humans are culpable for our insanity.  Even in creation, God has not left us without a witness to this fact. It’s neither natural or moral to fail to protect.

The Wacky Wombat

Common Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Back when I was a missionary in British Columbia, we had a friend visit from Australia.  I asked him, “Have you ever seen a bear in the wild?”  He hadn’t.  “Would you like to see one?”  He certainly did, but expressed his doubts whether I could just conjure up a wild bear for him.  We drove for about 15 minutes north and arrived at the fish-counting weir on the Babine River.  And sure enough, as always at that time of year, there were grizzly bears about, fishing for spawning salmon.  Our Aussie friend was duly impressed. 

Now if you were to visit our part of Australia today, I’d ask you, “Have you ever seen a wombat in the wild?”  The wombat is as close as we get to a bear here in Tasmania.  We’d have to drive a little bit, but there are some spots here where I can guarantee you’d see one — places like Maria Island, Cradle Mountain, or Narawntapu.  And there are plenty of other places where, even if we didn’t see an actual wombat, we could definitely see evidence of them. 

The main evidence you’d find would be their droppings.  They’re rather distinctive.  Wombat droppings are cubic, you see.  Yep, they’re the only animals in the world that poop cubes.  How does a wombat manage this feat?  According to a recent study of wombat intestines, rather than being consistent like most animals, wombats have areas of varying thickness and stiffness.  The droppings go through grooved tissues and irregular contractions and this produces cubes.  Now not all wombat droppings are perfect cubes, but apparently the more cubic they are, the healthier the wombat.

When most people think of marsupials, they think kangaroos.  However, wombats are marsupials too.  The wombat’s pouch faces backwards between its legs.  So you could very well see a momma wombat wandering away with a baby wombat peeking out from the pouch. 

Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Wombats are also renowned road kill in Tasmania and elsewhere.  Adult wombats can be a meter long and weigh in at 35 kg or 77 lbs.  They are like little bears.  If you hit one with your vehicle, you’re going to feel it and it’s going to do some damage.  This is because a wombat is not only large and heavy, but also built tough.  Wombats may look soft and cuddly, but they’ve been designed like a tank.  It’s especially their backsides that present a formidable wall – they have four fused bony plates.  They use their backsides for defence and mating.  When they’re in their burrows and an animal threatens to invade, they’ll just stick their bony butts out.  They’ve been known to crush their enemies with their ample derrieres.  Male and female wombats bite each other in their solid back ends as part of their mating rituals – and are none the worse for it.

Other wacky wombat facts:

  • Baby wombats hiccup when they’re stressed.
  • Wombat digestive processes include fermentation, a process which lasts weeks.
  • Some early European arrivals mistook the wombat for a badger.  Hence Tasmania has a “Badger Beach” on its north coast. 
  • Wombats create lengthy and complex burrow systems.  In 1960, a 15 year old Australian schoolboy began exploring wombat burrows by crawling through them.  Peter Nicholson’s research is still used today.
  • There are three species of wombats:  the common, the northern hairy-nosed, and the southern hairy-nosed.  All are only found in Australia (in the south and east).
  • The Latin name of the common wombat is vombatus ursinus – literally, “wombat bear.”  If you know your Heidelberg Catechism history, Zacharias Ursinus’ original German surname was Baer (=Bear).   

God has certainly put fascinating creatures on this earth.  Wombats are among them, animals that illustrate our Maker’s creative genius.  Here we have an animal that looks a little bear, but could hardly be more different than a bear.  I can’t help but exclaim with the psalmist, “O LORD, how manifold your works!  In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).                          

The Eccentric Echidna

For the last few years I’ve been privileged to live in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and arguably most beautiful state.  One of the wonderful things about Tasmania is the opportunity to regularly encounter unique wildlife.  We have some of the most interesting creatures in the world and with many of them, you don’t have to travel far to meet them. 

For example, I take a daily walk which brings me through a nearby bushland reserve.  During the warmer months, I frequently encounter the oddly fascinating echidna.  I’ll be walking along and an echidna will be foraging for food in the dirt at the side of the track.  If I walk up slowly from behind, usually I won’t be noticed.  But if I am noticed, the echidna doesn’t scurry away like most creatures might.  Instead, it freezes in place, tucks its head down and hopes for the best. 

If you’ve never seen one, an echidna is best described as a cross between a porcupine and a hedgehog.  It has quills like a porcupine, but unlike a porcupine the quills can’t be released as a defensive measure.  You don’t see Tasmanian dogs with echidna quills stuck in their noses!  If you’re careful, you can pick up an echidna – though you probably really shouldn’t.    

Echidnas are a type of monotreme.  Monotremes are egg-laying mammals.  The only other example is another Australian oddball, the platypus.  Female echidnas lay a single egg into a pouch – they don’t lay them on the ground in a nest, so you’re unlikely to find any echidna eggs.  The egg is incubated in the pouch and in 7-10 days the baby echidna (known as a ‘puggle’) hatches.  It stays in the pouch feeding on its mother’s milk until its ready for the outside world, about 6-8 weeks.  The development of the puggle’s sharp spines is what marks the moment – momma echidnas don’t like being poked.

They’re renowned for their slow metabolism and their typically low body temperature.  In the winter months, echidnas enter into a type of hibernation known as torpor.  By Canadian standards, winters in my home city of Launceston are quite mild.  Occasionally it does fall below freezing, but most of the time daytime highs are 10-14 degrees Celsius.  Despite that, you’ll seldom see an echidna in the winter.  Even those relatively mild winter temperatures will put them into a state of torpor.

Other fun facts about echidnas:

  • They don’t have teeth. Instead they have rough pads on their tongues and roofs of their mouths between which they grind their food.
  • Male echidnas have a spurs on their hind legs which secrete a smelly substance thought to play a role in communication. 
  • Male echidnas also have four penises, but only two are functional at any given moment. 
  • Apparently because of their slow metabolism, echidnas can live up to 50 years.
  • Historically they were used for food by First Nations. After all, they are easy to catch.

I’ve always had a fascination with wildlife, so my regular encounters with echidnas never get old.  I love watching them waddle along and intently search for insects.   But more than that, for me seeing echidnas is a moment to stop and praise God, the Creator of these amazing creatures.  It’s doxological.  Echidnas are unique animals, purposefully designed for their environment and also to bring adoration to their Maker.  When I see one, I always try to remind myself that my Father, who holds all things in his hand, has put this one echidna on my path so that I would see it and praise his handiwork.  Echidnas truly are eccentric members of the animal world, but like us, they were put on this planet for the glory of God.

A sixth sense? Yup, it’s true.

We all know about the standard five senses – taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing – but did you know some of God’s creatures have a little something extra?

In some animals that extra amounts to “super senses”: hummingbirds can see in the ultraviolet range (their eyes’ 4 types of color receptors is one more than we have), and elephants can communicate over long distances by using tones that are so low our ears can’t detect them.

In other animals that extra something goes beyond the standard five senses. Bumblebees seem to be able to use the positive electrical charge their bodies generate while buzzing around to help them detect flowers’ pollen which has a negative charge.

Meanwhile, sea turtles are able to somehow navigate across the ocean using variations in the Earth’s magnetic field to guide them on their way. Exactly how they do it is unclear, but scientists are closing in on how birds do something similar, and remarkably, it may involve quantum mechanics. It’s theory at this point and a really complicated one at that, but just the gist of it is amazing enough. Scientists are speculating that some birds can “see” the earth’s magnetic fields and do so by using particles in their eyes that are in a “quantum entangled” state. We don’t need to worry about what that exactly means; here’s one key point: that state lasts for just 1/10,000th of a second. That these birds might be processing information derived from a state lasting such a short time is pretty cool, but there’s another incredible wrinkle, as detailed by PBS Nova‘s Katherine J. Wu.

“Even in ideal laboratory conditions, which usually involve powerful vacuums or astoundingly icy temperatures, artificial quantum entanglement can unravel in just nanoseconds. And yet, in the wet, messy environment of a bird’s eye, entanglement holds. ‘It seems nature has found a way to make these quantum states live much longer than we’d expect, and much longer than we can do in the lab,’ Gauger says. ‘No one thought that was possible.’”

A nanosecond is a billionth of a second (yes, I had to look it up). This might have us tempted to say that the birdbrains are beating the brainiacs, but as amazing as the bird’s performance is, to give the credit where it is due we should be singing the praises of its Designer!

Humans beings also have a sixth sense, and we’re not talking about ESP. Proprioception is your sense of bodily awareness – the ability to know where all the bits of your body are without looking or feeling them. That might not seem as cool as “seeing” magnetic fields, but just consider what it allows you to do. When you close your eyes and can still touch your nose, that’s proprioception enabling you to do it. This is also why a quarterback can throw the ball accurately, even though his overhand motion doesn’t really allow him to see his throwing arm until the ball is released. And proprioception is why you can be balanced (even on one leg!) and how you can walk, without having to look down at your feet. This is one important sense!

So if you’ve ever thanked God for the wonderful flowers you can smell, the amazing sunrise you can see, the funky music you can hear, the delicious pizza you can taste, or the amazing softness of a newborn’s cheek that you can just barely feel, now you know there’s also a sixth sense to marvel at and thank Him for!