Information Courtesy of: The Australian Platypus Conservancy
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The platypus is the only Australian mammal known to be venomous. Adult males have a pointed spur (about 15 millimetres long) located just above the heel of each hind leg, which can be used to inject poison produced by a gland in the thigh (the crural gland). Venom is only secreted by mature males, with production peaking during the platypus breeding season in late winter and spring. It is therefore presumed that males mainly use their spurs when competing for mates or breeding territories.
The only other mammal with a comparable spur is the echidna. Although the male echidna has a similar spur on the ankle of its hind-leg, it lacks the functional venom gland of the platypus.
Recent research shows that the venom could actually be useful as a new type of painkiller as it acts on pain receptor cells, which is a property unique among venoms but shared with the active ingredient of chillies.
If provoked, a male platypus can use his spurs as a defensive weapon. In the days when platypus were shot for their fur, dogs were sometimes killed after being sent to retrieve a wounded male from the water. These days, people mainly get spurred when they handle a platypus which has become hooked inadvertently on a fishing line.
Platypus venom is not considered to be life-threatening to a healthy human. However, spurring is painful - in part, because platypus spurs are sharp and can be driven in with great force. As well, platypus poison triggers severe pain in the affected limb and can result in quite spectacular localised swelling.
No one actually knows how dangerous platypus venom is to other platypus. In captivity, a 15-year-old male died some days after being spurred by a younger adult in December (after the breeding season). However, it remained unclear whether the resulting tissue damage was due to the effects of poison or simply physical trauma and possible infection.
Platypus should never be handled, except in an emergency - for example, to extract a fishing hook that has become embedded in a platypus's bill. In such a situation, the platypus can be restrained by holding its body flat against the ground while the hook is carefully removed - ideally by a second person. Special care should be taken to avoid holding or supporting males (or animals of undetermined sex) from below. If it is necessary to pick up a sick or injured animal (for example, to place it in a secure bag or box before taking it to a veterinarian) the safest technique is to grip the platypus by the middle or end of its tail (but not the tail base, which an animal can reach with its spurs). To reduce struggling, cover the animal's eyes with a folded towel or item of soft clothing while it is being handled.
WHAT TO DO IF SPURRED? Return to Platypus Page
If spurred, take first-aid action as for snake-bite - i.e.
immobilise the injured limb with a pressure-bandage and splint;
keep calm and avoid strenuous movement;
seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
The pain appears to be controlled more effectively by local nerve-blocking agents than by morphine-related drugs. Placing ice or cold-packs on the site of the spur wound is not advisable as this may actually intensify the discomfort.