The Platypus Can Poison You 80 Different Ways

By Jennifer Welsh | October 13, 2010 4:50 pm

platypusThe platypus is a bit like a fruitcake. Shove a bunch of leftover genes in there, mix it up and send it to your relatives see what kind of animal you get.

That’s kind of the approach evolution used when designing this odd creature’s venom; scientists have just determined that the venom contains over 80 different toxins in 13 different classes. The poison can kill small animals, and can leave humans in pain for weeks. The venom is delivered through a barb on the male’s foot–it’s thought that the fellas use the poison during mating season to show dominance.

At least three of the toxins are unique to the platypus and the rest are strikingly similar to proteins from a variety of animals including snakes, lizards, starfish, and sea anemones. It seems that some of these toxins have evolved separately in different animal lineages to perform the same function, a process called convergent evolution. The study‘s lead author, Wesley Warren, told Nature News:

Warren says that this probably happens when genes that perform normal chores, such as blood coagulation, become duplicated independently in different lineages, where they evolve the capacity to carry out other jobs. Animals end up using the same genes as building blocks for venom because only a subset of the proteins the genes encode have the structural and functional properties to become venoms, he adds.

Learning more about how these toxins attack our system and induce inflammation, nerve damage, muscle contraction, and blood coagulation, could teach us how to design drugs with these effects (like coagulation for hemopheliacs), or their opposite (like new pain relievers).

We first started unraveling the platypus genome in 2008, when it was sequenced and revealed a long list of this marvel of monotreme evolution. The platypus lays eggs, but it also lactates and has hair like mammals, though it has no nipples. It has ten sex chromosomes, which resemble those of birds, but uses genes from mammals and reptiles to fertilize and lay its eggs, which are produced from only one of two ovaries (the left one). It also has fewer smell receptors than other mammals, but this diminished olfaction isn’t that big of a deal, because it hunts by detecting its prey’s electric current.

Not only does the animal itself mystify biologists, but its name has also become a bone of contention among linguists, says Neatorama:

Pluralizing the creature has proven to be quite a problem not for just laymen, but even to scientists. There is still no universally accepted plural to the word. Most people believe the plural form should be “platypi,” but the real Greek plural would be “platypodes.” Scientists stay away from both of those terms and prefer to use “platypuses” or just “platypus” no matter how many in question.

Related content:
The Loom: Did Grandma Have A Pouch? (And Other Thoughts on the Opossum’s Genome)
Gene Expression: The long fuse of mammalian diversity
DISCOVER: Sex, Ys, and Platypuses
DISCOVER: #90: The Platypus Genome Is a Mash-Up of Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals
80beats: Komodo Dragons Kill by Combining Tearing Teeth With Vile Venom

Image: Flickr/dnatheist

  • Robert E

    Completely irrelevant to anything, but whenever I see a story on the platypus I always think of the opening disclaimer to the movie “Dogma”

  • http://dreadtomatoaddiction.blogspot.com/ Tomato Addict

    Platypudii?

    It’s interesting that this venom has so many toxins, and I wonder if the platypus is immune to many of them. This might be the result of an evolutionary arms-race among male platypi to have more lethal venom, and be less susceptible to the venom of competing males.

  • Brian Too

    I humbly submit the plural form of Platypudden. It sounds delicious and will soon be on the menu at Krusty Burger!

  • http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/10/07/finding-platypus-venom/ Grant

    One more tidbit that I mentioned in my own article reviewing Warren’s paper (see link on my name): platypuses have no corpus callosum, although this is apparently also true of marsupials.

    I wouldn’t say that they have found 80 venoms — yet. The thing about their work is that rather than obtain supplies of the venom and try figure out the poisons in it, they built on the newly sequenced platypus genome sequence by screened for genes expressed in the venomous gland and compared them with known venom proteins (or peptides) from other species. These candidate venoms still need to be tested. What they have so far are ~80 genes coding for things (closely) resembling venoms in other species. Nit-pickery :-)

  • http://www.TechyDad.com/ TechyDad

    @Robert E,

    Whenever I see a story about a platypus, I think of Phineas and Ferb.

    80 different toxins in their venom? Curse you, Perry the Platypus!!!

  • Jennifer Welsh

    Hey all,

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    @RobertE: I tried really hard to find a good place to link to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mj6TXGIT0A#t=0m31s but couldn’t :(

    @Grant I love your nitpicking, thanks! For more detail on the approach used to identify these genes, visit Grant’s site: http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/10/07/finding-platypus-venom/

    Thanks all!

    Jen

  • HoneyBadger

    Honey Badger is much more of a bad ass. Look him up on youtube.

  • alleycatsphinx

    I’d be really curious about the meta-genetics of this species. Does it perhaps have an unusually high mutation rate (and how does the structure of it’s genes effect this?)

    I’m sure there are more surprises within this animal, seeing so many on its surface.

  • Paul

    The Platypus can kill you in 80 different ways with its venom, and a further 45 ways using only his thumbs.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    @Paul, just like Chuck Norris. The platypus is the Chuck Norris of the Monotreme world, and that’s why there is only one other species left.

  • James

    Doesn’t it seem likely that perhaps the platypus has some sort of key mutation which allows them to acquire genes from other creatures in their environment more easily?

    We’ve always known about other, simpler organisms that can pass/acquire genetic material from other organisms (virii and bacteria, for example)…. and the recent discoveries about how children acquire genetic material via cells passed through the mother in utero would seem to indicate that’s it highly possible for complex organisms as well.

  • http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/10/07/finding-platypus-venom/ Grant

    James,

    In a word, no. These venom proteins (peptides) are thought to have mostly evolved from genes of the host animal that have duplicated, become expressed only in the venomous glands, then diverged to become more toxic. I mention this in my article (Jen linked it above, or click on my name above this comment).

  • Jessica Simpson

    Platypus? I thought it was pronounced platymapus.

  • greek

    is that supposed to impress? as long as it doesnt have higher intellectual abilities like dolphins or apes, i dont really think this is special for anybody but scientist. its just a freak of nature .. big deal.

  • http://www.musicbyday.com Marvin

    I’m a huge fan of weird animals. Although, I suppose it’s all in what you are familiar with… Maybe humans are the weirdest animals.

  • Dick Kaplan

    We saw a platypus exhibit in the Sidney Aquarium in Darling Harbour. In the adjacent tanks were hundreds of kinds of fish (including large sharks) — all coexisting peacefully. The platypus however, ate every other little critter (mostly small crustaceans) in his tank NONSTOP! The sharks just swam around. He was a mean one, that platypus.

  • gianluca

    Being the -us suffix latin, and of the fist declination, shouldn’t the plural being — correctly — platypi ? That’s not greek.

  • esteban

    @ johnny effin n00b this isn’t a forum for you to “m2af” not that I would know what that means…

  • latgrk

    Platypi and platypuses make sense as Latin and English pluralizations. However, attempting Greek does not.

    Yes, platypus is a pseudo-Latin bastardization of the Greek words platys and pous. However, we do not use the word platyspous, we decided to force it to conform to Latin standards and get rid of the extra ‘s’ and ‘o’ to make it easier to use. As a ‘Latin’ word, it is logical to follow Latin conjugation.

    Obviously using standard English to pluralize has its benefits (particularly ease).

    Trying to return it to Greek before fusing them again would not result in platypodes anyway… (there is an fault in the process of only pluralizing one word and dropping less letters)

    As for anyone trying to argue the chronological superiority of the Greek language coming first, I am sure that the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language has claim there, so perhaps we should persue ancient possibilities for our endings?

    Where does Neatorama come up with the ‘real Greek plural’?

  • http://www.rikwaller.com/ Christ

    i proudly submit the mantis shrimp. It changes color, sees thousands of times more color than humans, can see a form of light that electrophysicists theorized only in the 90s, and at 20cm has the striking power of a rifle bullet. it also creates luminous cavitation pulses that it uses to stun and kill pretty much anything that irritates it. best of all, it uses ‘siege defecation’ to basically s**t enemies out of their burrows and steal them.

    [Moderator's note: edited the cuss word.]

  • guest

    Intelligent design my ass. 

  • hi

    freakin beast

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=837302697 John Abramson

    Plural : platypuses

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=837302697 John Abramson

    Thought it was always platypie, but I was wrong!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000774184414 Matthew Morgan

    psyduck is the coolest pokemon lol

  • Guest

    Poison is ingested. Venom is injected.

  • http://twitter.com/alexa11692 Ariel Elliott

    Why do we care what it would be in Greek? We label animals in Latin. In Latin it would be platypi.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ngcty Travis Ng Cty

    We label animals scientifically in Latin, but since the vernacular is “Platypus”, which is from a Greek root and not a Latin one, it would be incorrect/misleading to say “platypi”.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Discoblog

Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »