Breeding biology of the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)
AuthorThomas, Jessica Lee
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2018 Dr. Jessica Lee Thomas
This thesis examines the different behavioural stages of the reproductive cycle in the platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, the time and energy investment of the female in breeding, and use of burrows by wild juveniles during the period after they first emerge. Many aspects of platypus reproduction are poorly understood due to their cryptic, nocturnal, semi-fossorial and semi-aquatic behaviour, which makes studies in the wild difficult. I studied a group of captive platypuses at Healesville Sanctuary and newly emerged juveniles from the wild population within Badger Creek, Victoria. My aims were to examine prey selection and seasonal energy intake, quantify and describe courtship, mating, nesting behaviour and maternal care given to nestlings, and describe how juvenile platypuses use the habitat in their natal home range. In captivity, platypuses consumed the fewest kilojoules during the breeding season and most kilojoules during the post-breeding breeding season. They showed a preference for less-mobile prey (mealworms, earthworms and fly pupae). Crayfish formed the largest quantity of food in the diet and was highly nutritious for energy (kJ), vitamins and minerals. The platypus diet was influenced by nutritional content, the stage of the breeding season and the behaviour of the prey species. Female platypuses controlled breeding encounters with males via three strategies; avoidance, by having lower activity levels and changing their activity pattern to partially diurnal; flight, by leaving the area immediately upon encountering the male; and resistance, terminating breeding encounters with the male and using a non-contact courtship behaviour prior to contact courtship behaviours. These strategies are likely to protect females from injury and coercion. After mating, females invested 8 ± 1.5 hours over 3 nights collecting wet vegetation for their nesting burrow. The morphology of burrows varied each year, but contained the same structural features: narrow tunnels, dead ends, ‘pugs’ of backfilled earth and multiple entrances that lead to a nesting chamber containing a spherical vegetation nest. The female’s energy intake increased to twice that of a non-lactating female in the final month of lactation, indicating the high cost of milk production. The length of lactation dependence for platypus nestlings was 128 ± 1 days. Females spent less time in the nest with twins compared with a single nestling. I developed an infra-red camera technique which allowed platypus nestling behaviour, growth and development to be observed in their burrow. Weaning occurred as an instantaneous event when the nestlings emerged into the water. Newly emerged wild juvenile platypuses each used multiple burrows for single or multiple nights within their natal home range. There was no significant correlation with vegetation communities along the bank at burrow sites, indicating burrow site selection was not driven by vegetation structure. No juveniles dispersed, suggesting they persist in the natal home range until the sub-adult stage which may assist their survival as they develop their skills and complete their growth in high quality habitat. My study demonstrates that female platypuses invest a high amount of time and energy in breeding, from avoiding the male platypus, through courtship and mating, creating the nesting burrow, maternal care during lactation, and while juveniles persist in her home range after weaning. I have provided captive management recommendations based on my research to advance the animal welfare and captive breeding success of the platypus.
Keywordsmonotreme; behaviour; captive breeding
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