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Flickr: Eggplant

8 Facts Revealed by Genetic Analysis of the Platypus

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Flickr: Eggplant

You’ve heard the joke: “After God finished making all the animals, He took the leftover parts and made the platypus.” While the platypus does not, in fact, have an actual beaver’s tail nor a duck’s bill, genetic analysis proves that the platypus is confounding well beyond its external mismatched/mish-mashed characteristics.

1. Fur

Mammals are hairy by definition, and platypuses are hairier than most. They waterproof their dense fur by preening it free of oil and schmutz, and the clean fur acts as a sort of dry suit, trapping pockets of air to keep platypuses warm underwater. (Yes, sadly, “platypuses” is the official plural for platypus, though “platypi” is used in the Latin names for some insects. Or maybe you prefer platypodes?)

2. Mammaries

Like all mammals, platypuses nurse their young on milk produced by mammary glands. Thanks to 2008’s Platypus Genome Project, we know that platypus genes that are responsible for milk production read a lot like the milk-making genes in other mammals, humans included. Scientists now think that mammals have been producing milk for over 166 million years, which would mean milk production has been an instrumental evolutionary rudder in the development of modern mammals. Haha: udder rudder. Except...

The platypus doesn’t have teats. Instead, it oozes milk from mammary “patches,” which are kind of like areolae without the nipples. Other animals that nurse via mammary patches? Oh, just the four species of echidna (spiny anteaters), which, together with the platypus, make up the entire order Monotremata, also known as “egg-laying mammals.”

3. Eggs

Platypuses lay leathery, reptile-like eggs, but their genes tell us that their egg-making genes are more mammalian—in some ways. Other egg-related gene characteristics are shared with birds, amphibians and fish, while still others are only shared with birds and fish, and those genetic traits only partially shared.

Much like marsupials (kangaroos, possums, and other pocketed animals), platypus young are born (i.e. hatch from their leathery eggs) in a semi-fetal state, and continue developing throughout the nursing process. In fact, echidnas keep their young in a pouch after hatching; platypuses instead dig deep, complex burrows in which to safely build their nests. How?

4. Feet

...With their clawed feet, which are also webbed for swimming. Who says working moms can’t have it all?

5. Eyes

The platypus’ eyes alone have been the subject of much publication, possessing (again) a mosaic of characteristics found in disparate animal orders. For instance, they have a rod/cone balance that most closely resembles that of other mammals, but also have a “double cone” thing going on, a feature not found in eutherian mammals (mammals that give birth to fully developed young) or marsupials. Meanwhile, their eyeballs are enclosed by a type of cartilage more like that seen in birds, reptiles, amphibians, sharks, rays, and lungfish.

6. Poison!

Male platypuses have pretty mean built-in weapons: spurs on their hind legs that are loaded with a venom potent enough to kill a dog and debilitate a human for days. While there are a few other types of venomous mammal out there, this type of venomous sting could be considered a more reptilian-like trait; that is, the venom itself is made up of organic material similar to the venom in reptiles. However, according to the platypus genome, that organic material gets made via variations in different genes than in reptiles. Reptilian result, uniquely platypusal cause.

7. Sexy bits

The sex of the platypus is determined by a set of ten chromosomes, which, according to platypus geneticist Jennifer Graves, “are absolutely, completely different from all other mammals. We had not expected that.” Each platypus sperm contains either all X or all Y chromosomes. And the platypus X chromosome looks more like the Z sex chromosome that shows up in birds.

8. Electro-sensory system

In case you weren’t yet convinced that the platypus is “special”: It hunts via a system called electroreception, which is exactly as rad as it sounds. The skin in its bill is highly sensitive, and its combination of touch receptors and electroreceptors (comparable to those found in electric fish) pick up on movements and low-frequency electrical signals in its prey. That’s why, even hunting underwater, at night, the platypus can still bring home the bacon. It’s like, guys—leave some cool stuff for the rest of us, maybe.

Primary image via Flickr user The Eggplant. 

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Richard Bouhet // Getty
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science
4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
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Richard Bouhet // Getty

As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.

1. DON’T FRY YOUR EYES—OR BREAK THE BANK

To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”

2. DON’T DIY YOUR EYE PROTECTION

There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.

3. GET TO THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.

4. PRESERVE YOUR NIGHT VISION

Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

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HBO
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Pop Culture
IKEA Publishes Instructions for Turning Rugs Into Game of Thrones Capes
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HBO

Game of Thrones is one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced, but even the crew of the hit HBO series isn’t above using an humble IKEA hack behind the scenes. According to Mashable, the fur capes won by Jon Snow and other members of the Night’s Watch on the show are actually sheepskin rugs sold by the home goods chain.

The story behind the iconic garment was first revealed by head costume designer Michele Clapton at a presentation at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum in 2016. “[It’s] a bit of a trick,” she said at Designing the Middle Ages: The Costumes of GoT. “We take anything we can.”

Not one to dissuade customers from modifying its products, IKEA recently released a cape-making guide in the style of its visual furniture assembly instructions. To start you’ll need one of their Skold rugs, which can be bought online for $79. Using a pair of scissors cut a slit in the material and make a hole where your head will go. Slip it on and you’ll look ready for your Game of Thrones debut.

The costume team makes a few more changes to the rugs used on screen, like shaving them, adding leather straps, and waxing and “frosting” the fur to give it a weather-worn effect. Modern elements are used to make a variety of the medieval props used in Game of Thrones. The swords, for example, are made from aircraft aluminum, not steel. For more production design insights, check out these behind-the-scenes secrets of Game of Thrones weapons artists.

[h/t Mashable]

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