10 Curious Facts About the Platypus

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The platypus is arguably one of the most distinct animals on the planet. Here are a few things you might not have known about this quirky creature.

1. THEY DON'T HAVE A STOMACH.

Platypuses (platypodes and platypi are technically also correct, but much rarer in use) aren't the only animals to forgo an acid-producing part of the gut; spiny echidnas, and nearly a quarter of living fishes all have a gullet that connects directly to their intestines.

2. THEIR BILL GIVES THEM A "SIXTH SENSE."

Duck-billed platypus
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A platypus’s bill is comprised of thousands of cells that give it a sort of sixth sense, allowing them to detect the electric fields generated by all living things. It’s so sensitive that the platypus can hunt with its eyes, ears, and nose all closed, relying entirely on the bill’s electrolocation.

3. THEY USED TO BE GIANT.

The ancient versions of a lot of modern animals, including penguins, were oversized monsters compared to the animals we know today. And platypuses are no different. In 2013, the discovery of a single tooth helped researchers identify a prehistoric platypus that was more than three feet long—double the size of the modern animal.

4. MONOTREME MEANS "SINGLE HOLE" IN GREEK.

Platypuses are one of only five species of extant monotremes—just them and four species of echidna—which split from the rest of the mammals 166 million years ago. These egg-laying mammals get their name from the hole that serves as both an anus and a urino-genital opening. In 2008, scientists deciphered the entire DNA of the duck-billed platypus and determined that, in accordance with the animal’s somewhat bizarre appearance, the platypus shared genes with reptiles, birds, and mammals.

5. THEY NURSE WITHOUT NIPPLES.

A platypus in the water
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Although platypuses are born out of leathery eggs, the babies nurse from their mother. Female platypuses, however, don’t have nipples. Instead, their milk is released out of mammary gland ducts on their abdomen. The babies drink it up by sucking it out the folds of their mother's skin, or her fur.

6. THE MALES HAVE VENOMOUS SPURS.

Platypuses are one of just a few venomous mammals, which is one of their more reptilian characteristics. But unlike snakes, a platypus’s venom isn’t in his teeth. Instead, males have a hollow spur on each hind leg from which venom is dispensed—but only sometimes. Although the spur itself is always there, the venom gland to which it is connected is seasonally-activated and only produces venom during mating season, indicating that its use is for fending off competing males.

7. THEY HAVE RETRACTABLE WEBBING.

Although they can only stay submerged in water for a few minutes—they are mammals, after all—platypuses are much better suited to scooting around in water than they are on land. Much like an otter, they prune their thick coat to add air bubbles that act as insulation in the cool rivers where they hunt. Out on land, the platypus's short limbs mean it has to exert 30 percent more energy than a similarly sized land-based mammal just to move around . All that said, they do have one particular adaptation to ease their terrestrial travel: The webbing between their front claws—a boon when paddling through streams—retracts when the platypus ambles up the riverbank to expose sharp claws.

8. SCIENTISTS THOUGHT THE FIRST KNOWN PLATYPUS WAS A HOAX.

A photo of a platypus
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When the first platypus specimen was sent back to England from Australia in the late 18th century, the scientists who examined it thought that someone was playing a trick on them. "It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means," zoologist George Shaw wrote in the first scientific description of the platypus, published in 1799. That said, one of the most remarkable and weird aspects of the platypus—its ability to lay eggs—wasn’t discovered for another 100 years.

9. THEY USE GRAVEL AS MAKESHIFT TEETH.

Platypuses don’t have teeth inside their bill, which makes it difficult to chew some of their favorite foods—but they have worked out a pretty ingenious solution. Along with worms, insects, shellfish, and whatever else these bottom-feeders scoop up to make a meal out of, the platypus also picks up gravel from the riverbed. The platypus packs the whole lot into pouches in his cheek to carry it up to the surface where he munches away, using the bits of gravel as makeshift teeth to break up some of the tougher food.

10. THEY USE THEIR TAILS FOR ALL SORTS OF THINGS.

Unlike beavers, which have very visually similar tails, platypuses don't use their tails to slap the water in warning, or even to move them through the water. Most of the time, the primary function of the platypus's tail is just to store up to nearly half of the animal's body fat in case of a food shortage. A female platypus also uses her tail to hold incubating eggs against her warm body.

The 10 Fastest Animals in the World

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Though humans love to assign superlatives—smartest, fastest, strongest—to the creatures of the animal kingdom, those attributes are, in practice, pretty difficult to measure. There are stories of sailfish traveling at 68 mph, for example, but they date to the 1940s and '50s; since then, scientists have determined that anything faster than 33 mph is likely impossible and would lead to "destructive consequences for fin tissues." Old record breaking numbers might be inflated by everything from high wind speeds to inaccurate methodology—not to mention the difficulty of determining the top speed of animals that may or may not be going full out when measured, or the lack of measuring all animals all the time (which means that there still might be record breakers out there). But of the measurements that have been done—and with those caveats in mind—scientists have determined that these 10 creatures are good candidates for the fastest animals on Earth.

10. QUARTER HORSE // 55 MPH

A tan-colored horse running with its mane flying out behind it.
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At the lower end of the list there are several animals that run around the same speed. One of these is the quarter horse, which is generally faster than its more famous thoroughbred relatives—at least over short distances like a quarter mile. And the differences can be pronounced: One study found that over various races of various distances the quarter horse averaged 45 miles per hour, while the thoroughbred averaged only 35 mph—although the thoroughbred generally ran longer races. More impressively, the quarter horse was able to manage over 55 mph near the end of the race [PDF].

9. SPRINGBOK // 60 MPH

A springbok jumping high above yellow grass.
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According to recent research, the black wildebeest has unusual muscle fibers that allow it to run at high speeds for long distances. It's thought that the springbok—which is related to the wildebeest—may also have these fibers, which allows them to escape predators on the African Savannah.

8. PRONGHORN // APPROXIMATELY 40-62 MPH

A pronghorn running.
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The pronghorn is frequently cited as the second fastest land animal on Earth, although many of those speed estimates are based on studies from the 1940s [PDF], when researchers proposed they could run at around 60 mph. Other observations have put pronghorns running almost seven miles in just 10 minutes, which works out to 40 mph.

7. ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD // 61 MPH

An Anna's hummingbird in flight.
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This little critter can travel at 61 mph for short distances during mating dives. That fact alone is impressive, but this hummingbird is a good candidate for fastest vertebrate by body lengths per second. According to a 2009 paper, it can reach speeds of 385 body lengths per second (that figure doesn't factor in the avian's .59-inch bill; factoring that in reduces the speed to around 320 bl/s). By comparison, the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere travels at around 207 bl/s. For a blue whale to match this hummingbird's relative speed, it would have to circle the entire planet in about an hour.

6. CHEETAH // 65 MPH

A cheetah running.
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The top speed of a cheetah is extremely difficult to determine. One of the fastest reliable records was obtained by a conservationist and the cheetah he'd raised. He attached some meat behind his vehicle and took off, and the cat gave chase, clocking approximately 64 mph over the trials. Meanwhile, a cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo managed 61 mph in 2012. But these numbers aren't indicative of wild cheetah speed: When scientists put GPS collars on wild cheetahs, they found that although one reached 59 mph, the average top speed was just 33 mph, because it's easier to maneuver at slower speeds.

5. COMMON SWIFT // 70 MPH

A common swift flying.
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Many sources claim that the fastest bird in level flight is the white-throated needletail, sometimes called the spine-tailed swift. But there's no evidence for the methodology behind determining the record, so it's rarely considered valid. So this spot belongs to another swift: One specimen of common swift was observed flying at almost 70 mph.

4. GRAY-HEADED ALBATROSS // APPROXIMATELY 80 MPH

A gray-headed albatross flying.
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The official Guinness World Record for fastest bird in level flight, however, doesn't go to the common swift. It goes to the gray-headed albatross, specifically one gray-headed albatross that got caught in an Antarctic storm. The paper detailing this record holder explained that "typical air speed of small albatrosses flying with a tail wind is [20±9 miles per hour], that speed being relatively constant with increasing wind force" and noted that the bird seemed to have a 40 to 50 mph tailwind. Audubon summarized this as "the equivalent of avian steroids."

3. HYBOMITRA HINEI WRIGHTI // APPROXIMATELY 90 MPH (WE THINK)

A horse fly sitting on a rock.
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According to an article published in Discover in 2000, an entomologist at the University of Florida attempted to recreate the mating behavior of the Hybomitra hinei wrighti horsefly. Males of this species chase and catch the females, and together they fall to the ground. To simulate this, the researcher fired a plastic pellet from an air rifle; the male horsefly chased the pellet, reaching speeds of at least 90 mph. Since then, little research has been done on the subject, and the result is noted as being "a noteworthy record" in "the unrefereed literature."

2. BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS // 100 MPH (MAYBE)

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According to a 2016 paper, all seven of the Brazilian free-tailed bats studied traveled faster than 55 mph. Five hit almost 70 mph and one flew 100 miles per hour, making it potentially the fastest flying animal in the world. Some scientists that spoke to New Scientist were skeptical of the record, however, saying that the bats may have had gravity or wind assists, but the authors of the study expressed confidence in their results.

1. PEREGRINE FALCON // 200+ MPH

A peregrine falcon flying.
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It's often said that the peregrine falcon can fly around 200 mph, which isn't the entire story. In level flight, the peregrine falcon is usually thought to max out at 40 to 60 mph—fast, but not ridiculously so. It reaches its top speed by falling in a specialized hunting dive called a stoop.

(This may seem like a bit of a cheat—extreme human skydivers can go considerably faster, and if diving speed for all other creatures were counted, this list would be almost entirely birds. A paper published in 2001 [PDF] looked at several dive speeds of just passerine birds and found a barn swallow that dived at 117 mph, a yellow wagtail diving at 118, and a pied flycatcher diving at 120 mph.)

For years, there was suspicion of this top speed, and in the 1990s, some researchers pegged the birds at a more reasonable stoop speed of 90 miles per hour. It wasn't until the 2000s that a researcher began skydiving with a peregrine falcon. Together they were diving at speeds well in excess of 200 mph. But because this is a dive, the title of fastest animal on Earth is still open to debate.

People Really Do Feel For Dogs More Than Humans

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If you have a harder time empathizing with human suffering than with pets in peril, you’re not alone. According to a study published earlier this year in Society & Animals, humans may project more pity when a dog is perceived to be in trouble than when a person is ailing under similar circumstances.

To assess whether people were more concerned with dogs than with their fellow Homo sapiens, researchers at Northwestern University gathered 240 undergraduate subjects between the ages of 18 and 23 and gave them a series of fictitious newspaper stories about a senseless attack. In all of the stories, the victim was hit with a baseball bat, suffered a broken leg and lacerations, and was found unconscious by first responders.

While those details remained consistent, researchers randomized the text so it would mention one of four victims: an adult, a 1-year-old infant, a 6-year-old dog, or a puppy. (Yes, this study used the premise of a baby being pummeled with a bat. All in the name of science.)

The researchers suspected that the victims' age, not species—where a younger age would indicate a greater degree of vulnerability—would determine participants' empathy for them. Using questions to measure their empathy levels on a numerical scale from seven (little empathy) to 112 (a lot of empathy), the organizers then quizzed subjects on how they felt about each of the cases. They were most upset by the attacks on the infant, followed by the puppy and older dog. The adult human, while considered tragic, scored lowest. "Age makes a difference for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims," the researchers wrote.

Female participants, who made up almost three-quarters of the study group, were also found to be much more sympathetic toward all of the victims than male participants.

The authors say the results were borne out, in part, of the perceived helplessness of the victims, regardless of whether they were puppies or children. In the end, one thing is reasonably certain: We're just as concerned about our fur babies as we are with young humans.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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