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As If Platypuses Couldn't Get Any Weirder, Turns Out They Glow in the Dark Too

The platypus is God’s idea of a funny joke. 
IMAGE FREDERICK POLYDORE NODDER (1799)/PUBLIC DOMAIN
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Platypuses are God’s idea of a joke. They are basically four animals assembled into one (a snake, a duck, a beaver, an otter). When a platypus specimen from Australia was sent to Britain for examination in 1799, scientists thought it was the Australians’ idea of a funny joke.

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English zoologist George Shaw was the first to document the species, but he thought of it as a hoax. “It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means,” he wrote.

The illustration in the main image was drawn by Frederick Polydore Nodder in June 1799 and is the very first one depicting a platypus. 

A hundred years later, scientists would recognize that the platypus is a real animal. Aside from looking like a hodgepodge of birds and mammals, the platypus also has reptilian qualities: The males have a venomous claw on their hind legs, which they use to sting enemies.

But just when we thought we had discovered everything that there is to find out about the strange mammal, turns out we were wrong. Apparently, platypuses actually glow in the dark!

Platypus Fur Glows in the Dark

Photo by Mammalia 2020; 10.1515/mammalia-2020-0027. 

A male platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) museum specimen (FMNH 16612) collected from Tasmania, Australia, photographed under visible light and 385–395 nm ultraviolet (UV) light without and with a yellow camera lens filter. Cyan to green biofluorescence of ∼500 nm is seen in the middle panels. UV absorption is indicated by dark areas in the far right panel.

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In a study published in the online journal De Gruyter, scientists reveal another secret to the platypus: bioluminescence

There are many bioluminescent creatures that exist, but they are nothing near the complexity of mammals: mushrooms, jellyfish, plankton. 

It is unclear why platypuses should possess this ability. We imagine God going all carpe diem when he decided to make this animal. 

“The fur of the platypus was biofluorescent: absorbing short UV wavelengths and re-emitting visible light,” wrote the researchers.

According to the researchers, both male and female platypuses exhibit this biofluorescence. 

Why Platypuses Glow in the Dark

Although the scientists have not established why platypuses are glowing, they have put forward a theory.

“Biofluorescence in the platypus… strengthens the hypothesis that the trait is adaptive in low-light environments,” wrote the scientists. 

Two other mammals exhibit this trait, and they are night creatures: the biofluorescent flying squirrels and opossums. Platypuses, like the two, are also active at midnight. 

But unlike the flying squirrel and opossums, which use their body light to interact with each other, scientists think the platypus uses this ability to evade predators

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“The absorbance of UV light and subsequent fluorescence of longer wavelengths may reduce the visibility of the platypus to UV-sensitive predators,” wrote the researchers. Such UV-sensitive predators include crocodiles, alligators, and owls. 

Now that scientists have confirmed it, we can add “glowing mushroom” to the list of ingredients God used when he made the platypus.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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