Field biology of the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus): Historical and current perspectives

T. R. Grant, P. D. Temple-Smith

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The field biology of the platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, was first studied by a number of expatriate biologists who visited the Australian colonies to collect specimens in the 1800s. Their work was followed in the early to mid-1900s by a group of resident natural historians and later by an increasing number of academic biologists. All of these workers contributed significantly to the current understanding of the field biology of this unique Australian species. The platypus occupies much the same general distribution as it did prior to European occupation of Australia, except for its loss from the state of South Australia. However, local changes and fragmentation of distribution due to human modification of its habitat are documented. The species currently inhabits eastern Australia from around Cooktown in the north to Tasmania in the south. Although not found in the west-flowing rivers of northern Queensland, it inhabits the upper reaches of rivers flowing to the west and north of the dividing ranges in the south of the state and in New South Wales and Victoria. Its current and historical abundance, however, is less well known and it has probably declined in numbers, although still being considered as common over most of its current range. The species was extensively hunted for its fur until around this turn of this century. The platypus is mostly nocturnal in its foraging activities, being predominantly an opportunistic carnivore of benthic invertebrates. The species is homeothermic, maintaining its low body temperature (32°C), even while foraging for hours in water below 5°C. Its major habitat requirements include both riverine and riparian features which maintain a supply of benthic prey species and consolidated banks into which resting and nesting burrows can be excavated. The species exhibits a single breeding season, with mating occurring in late winter or spring and young first emerging into the water after 3-4 months of nurture by the lactating females in the nesting burrows. Natural history observations, mark and recapture studies and preliminary investigations of population genetics indicate the possibility of resident and transient members of populations and suggest a polygynous mating system. Recent field studies have largely confirmed and extended the work of the early biologists and natural historians.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1081-1091
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1372
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 1998


  • Ecology
  • Foraging
  • Habitat requirements
  • Platypus
  • Social organization
  • Temperature regulation

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