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One Weird Mammal

A scientist tracks down platypuses to study the strange creatures

Dave Watts/NPL/Minden Pictures

Platypuses can sense tiny electrical impulses with their bills, which helps them track prey underwater. This ability is called electroreception.

 

• They don’t have stomachs! Food goes straight to their intestines. 

 

• Watch out, the males have venomous spurs that stick out of their heels!  

 

• The webs of their feet retract on land, where they aren’t useful.

When the first European scientist saw a duck-billed platypus in 1799, he thought it was a hoax. How could something so strange be real? Although covered with hair like all mammals, a platypus also has webbed feet, sharp claws, and a duck-like bill. These features make the creature look like something out of a tall tale. But the semi-aquatic mammals are as real as you or me—and have proven difficult to study.

Just ask Melody Serena. She has studied platypuses for 30 years. “They’re one of the most interesting and wonderful creatures in the world,” she says. Serena is a wildlife ecologist at the Australian Platypus Conservancy. She works to protect both platypuses and the freshwater rivers and streams where they live. But the animals spend almost no time on land, so she doesn’t have an easy job.

In 1799, the first European scientist saw a duck-billed platypus from Australia. He thought the odd-looking animal was a hoax. It was covered with hair like all mammals, but it had webbed feet, sharp claws, and a duck-like bill. How could something so strange be real?

The marsh-dwelling mammals do exist—but they’re difficult to study. Just ask Melody Serena. She has studied platypuses for 30 years. "They're one of the most interesting and wonderful creatures in the world," she says.

Serena is a wildlife ecologist at the Australian Platypus Conservancy. She works to protect the platypus and the rivers and streams where it lives. But the animals spend almost no time on land. That means Serena’s job isn’t always easy.

Geoff Williams, Australian Platypus Conservancy

Melody Serena

Platypuses rarely leave footprints or poop behind for researchers to find. So Serena has to wait by rivers to spot the animals. “I often have to stay awake through most of the night, which is probably the hardest part of what I do,” she says.

When she does manage to find a platypus, she tags it with a radio transmitter, which sends information about the animal’s movements to her. “The reward is that I’ve learned a lot of new things about this very remarkable species,” she says. Some of her discoveries include where the animals like to feed and how far they typically travel per day.

To make sure platypuses can continue to thrive, Serena spends a lot of her time talking to the Australian government and local communities about preserving platypus habitat. If people aren’t careful, the animals can drown in traps set to catch crayfish, or get entangled in fishing lines. Australia’s recent wildfires have also damaged platypus habitat. “There’s very little point in carrying out platypus research if the results aren’t used to protect and strengthen populations,” she says.

Platypuses rarely leave footprints or poop behind for researchers to find. So Serena has to wait by rivers to spot the animals. "I often have to stay awake through most of the night,” she says. “That’s probably the hardest part of what I do."

When she does manage to find a platypus, she tags it with a radio transmitter. The device sends her information about the animal's movements. She’s discovered where the animals like to feed and how far they travel in a day. "I've learned a lot of new things about this very remarkable species," she says.

She’s also learned about threats platypuses face in their habitat. The animals can drown in traps meant to catch crayfish if people don’t set them carefully. Platypuses can also get entangled in fishing lines. Serena spends a lot of time talking to the Australian government and local communities about keeping the unique animals safe. "There's very little point in carrying out platypus research if the results aren't used to protect and strengthen populations," she says.

Scientists tagged 7 platypuses and recorded their weights. Then they used trackers to study how far the platypuses traveled. Receivers placed along a river detected the trackers, which they used to estimate how far each one moved. Below is their data. Use mean, median, and mode to analyze it. Round answers to the nearest tenth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Scientists tagged 7 platypuses and recorded their weights. Then they used trackers to study how far the platypuses traveled. Receivers placed along a river detected the trackers, which they used to estimate how far each one moved. Below is their data. Use mean, median, and mode to analyze it. Round answers to the nearest tenth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Mean:

Mean:

Median:

Median:

Mode:

Mode:

Mean:

Mean:

Median:

Median:

Mode:

Mode:

Mean:

Mean:

Median:

Median:

Mode:

Mode:

Do all data sets have a mode? Explain.

Do all data sets have a mode? Explain.

Which data set has multiple outliers (values much lower or higher than the mean)? What happens to the mean and median if you exclude these outliers?

Which data set has multiple outliers (values much lower or higher than the mean)? What happens to the mean and median if you exclude these outliers?

Google Quiz

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