Platypus Venom: Everything You Need to Know
There’s no stranger animal than a duck-billed platypus! When the first stuffed specimen was brought to England from Australia, scientists believed it was a joke. It sweats milk, has electroreception, lays eggs, has 10 sex chromosomes and, if that weren’t enough, if you annoy it you may have to face platypus venom!
In this article, we’ll be telling you all about this animal’s venom. Like the rest of its characteristics, this is also one that experts can’t understand. If this has piqued your curiosity, then read on.
The effects of platypus venom on humans
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a semi-aquatic mammal endemic to Australia and the island of Tasmania. It’s the only living representative of its family (Ornithorhynchidae) and genus, although some similar species have been found in fossil records. It’s one of the five species that still exist in the order of the monotremes, along with echidnas.
This animal is relatively shy, and only the males are poisonous, contrary to what people usually think. Few “bites ” or injuries caused by this mammal have been recorded, but people who have suffered them have reported intense pain. Around the wound, an edema forms, which spreads over the affected area.
Interestingly, some people argue that this poison can produce hyperalgesia. This means that the patient reacts quite severely to pain for days, weeks, and even months after contact with the toxin, since the nociceptors (cells responsible for perceiving pain) in the area are affected in the long term.
The platypus injects 2 to 4 milliliters of venom into a bite.
Although it isn’t fatal to humans, the pain caused by the platypus venom isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s so intense that even morphine can’t alleviate it. In addition, it’s capable of producing the aforementioned hyperalgesia, edema, hyperventilation, and even seizures, depending on the amount injected.
Platypus venom is made up of 19 different peptides and additional non-protein components, as studies indicate. Experts have determined three types of compounds that make it up:
- Defensins: Produced by the platypus’s immune system, these are similar to those found in the venom of reptiles, spiders, fish, and starfish, although in these mammals it evolved divergently.
- Natriuretics: Neurotoxins associated with muscle atrophy.
- Nerve growth factors: These peptides are related to hyperalgesia, as they favor the branching and creation of nerve endings.
Is the poison deadly to humans?
Platypus venom is deadly to small animals, but not to humans. Furthermore, it isn’t a hunting animal, its predators are clearly more dangerous than it, and females don’t have venom. So what do they need it for?
The most convincing theory in this regard suggests that it’s a weapon for the mating season. The males fight among themselves to establish a territory and obtain the right of copulation, which occurs between June and October. Therefore, the fact that it bites a human will have a lot to do with whether it’s threatening the animal in some way, especially in their mating season.
Interestingly, the females of this species have 2 ovules, but only the left one is functional.
How does the platypus produce its venom?
Platypus venom is produced in the femoral glands, located on the hind legs. These glands connect to two heel spurs that, in turn, are attached to a small bone that provides a better angle of attack at the joint.
In the case of females, the spur is rudimentary. It never develops as it does in the male and, in addition, it falls out before they’re a year old. The genetic information necessary to produce the poison is on the male chromosome, so it wouldn’t make sense to preserve this structure for life in the case of the female gender.
The platypus attack consists of giving a “kick” backwards, with considerable force, stabbing their victim with their spurs. The blow is intense enough for the animal to stick to you, literally. People who have been in this situation have needed medical assistance to unhook it.
An almost prehistoric animal!
The curiosities about this mammal never end. The common ancestor between the platypus and humans, so experts believe, lived about 170 million years ago. Since then, the species has separated from virtually all other animals, sharing only 80% of the genome with the rest of the mammals.
Their numerous sex chromosomes are closer to those of chickens, as it appears that they haven’t changed much since the time prehistoric birds. Recent sequencing of its genome has revealed important discoveries connecting mammals, eggs, and venom. We recommend that you take a look at the cited sources if you’d like to know more.