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10 Curious and Quirky Platypus Facts

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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 Have No Stomach.

They’re not the only ones to forgo an acid-producing part of the gut. Platypuses (–podes and –pi are technically also correct, but much rarer in use), spiny echidnas, and nearly a quarter of living fishes all have a gullet that connects directly to their intestines. These animals not only lost the physical feature of a stomach, but also the genes required to produce one over the millennia—meaning they’re unlikely to ever go back to having one.

2. Their Bill Gives Them a Sixth Sense.

A platypus’s bill is comprised of thousands of cells that can 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.

This seems to be the case with a lot of modern animals—the ancient animals were oversized monster versions of what we have now. And platypuses are no different. In 2013, based on the discovery of a single tooth, researchers identified a prehistoric platypus that was over 3 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 anus and urino-genital opening. In 2008, scientists deciphered the entire DNA of the duck-billed platypus in a study involving more than 100 scientists from eight countries and found that, in accordance with the animal’s appearance, the platypus genome includes genes derived from the disparate worlds of reptiles, birds, and mammals.

5. They Nurse Without Nipples.

Although platypuses are born out of leathery eggs, the babies nurse like mammals from their mother. Female platypuses, however, don’t have nipples. Instead, the milk oozes out of mammary gland ducts on their abdomen and babies drink up by sucking it out of their mother’s fur.

6. The Males Have Venomous Spurs.

Platypuses are one of just a few venomous mammals—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 sticks around, the venom gland to which it is connected is seasonally-activated and only produces venom during the mating season, indicating that its use is for fending off competing males.

7. They Have Retractable Webbing.

Although they can only stay submerged 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 short, splayed limbs of a platypus require it to exert 30 percent more energy to move around as compared to a terrestrial mammal of similar size. 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.

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," English 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. ... And 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 propel them through the water. Most of the time, the primary function of the platypus tail is just to store up to half of the animal's body fat in case of a food shortage. The bristle-like fur on the upper side of the tail also makes it useful in pushing away dirt while digging a burrow or gathering leaves to make a nest. A female platypus also uses her tail to hold incubating eggs against her warm body.

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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