Platypus
Info and Facts about Platypus: The most unusual animal on the planet

Electric Field

When the first complete skin of a duckbill platypus arrived at the British Museum in 1798, the curators thought it a hoax.

Thick fur, webbed forefeet and a ducklike bill? Too bizarre.

 

Even after recognizing the platypus as a new species, taxonomists debated its proper place in the animal hierarchy.

Found only in Australia, it lays eggs like a reptile yet has milk glands like a mammal, swims like a duck but has the fur of a beaver.

Ornithorhynchus anatinus was finally assigned to the monotreme order of mammals, but it has never stopped bemusing zoologists.

Now, scientists report that the platypus is plugged in: it can sense electrical fields, the first higher vertebrate found to have that ability.

When a platypus dives underwater, a flap of skin covers its eyes and ears and valves shut off its nostrils, leaving only the bill to locate food.

Biologists had thought the bill was purely tactile, feeling the currents stirred up by moving prey.

  • When they placed a miniature 1.5-volt alkaline battery at the bottom of a pool, a platypus found and attacked it, seizing it with rapid snaps of the bill 88 out of 88 times. 
  • And when platypuses had a choice between a live battery, a dead battery and a shrimp tail, they showed a clear preference for the active battery.
  • Finally, when the researchers switched on an electrical field behind a hollow brick, the animals turned over the brick, as if searching for food, more than twice as often as they did when the field was switched off.

By stimulating the platypus's bill with electrodes and simultaneously monitoring its brain for activity, the researchers established that it is indeed the bill that senses electric fields.

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