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Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) Fact Sheet: Managed Care

History of Managed Care

Zoos, general

  • 1831: Earliest report of platypuses in managed care (Jackson 2003)
    • Kept for a short period of time—about two weeks
  • Early 1900s: Naturalist Harry J. Burrell’s first efforts to keep platypuses in managed care (Burrell 1927; Crandall 1964; Moyal 2001)
    • Designed a portable artificial habitat called the “platypusary”
      • Innovative in managed care of the platypus
      • Water tank for swimming and feeding, ledges out of water for resting, wooden tunnels to dry fur and burrow
    • 1910: Resulted in first public exhibition of a platypus in a zoo (Moore Park/Sydney Zoological Gardens) (Barrett 1941; Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Burrell’s work provided a foundation for later husbandry and transport efforts (Crandall 1964)
    • Also see “History” in Cultural History
  • 1922: First live platypus exhibited outside Australia at Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park) (Barrett 1941; Bridges, undated)
    • Thought to be the first export of a platypus from Australia (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Survived only six weeks (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
  • 1932-37: Platypuses at Healesville Sanctuary
    • 1932: first platypus acquired (Sharpe 1994b)
    • 1933-1937: Robert Eadie was keeper of “Splash,” a platypus that became especially popular with public audiences (Crandall 1964; Sharpe 1994b, except as noted)
      • Lived longer than previous platypuses in managed care; established longer viability for this species
      • Helped to advance husbandry knowledge of this species (Fleay 1944a)
  • 1937: David Fleay began keeping female platypus “Barwon” at Melbourne Zoo (Crandall 1964)
    • Lived for nearly five years at the zoo
  • 1943-1947: Australian Government used live platypuses as diplomatic gifts to allied nations during WWII (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Winston Churchill was sent a live platypus (died en-route due to malnutrition), as well as the preserved, mounted remains of “Splash”
  • 1944: first breeding in managed care by David Fleay (then Director at Healesville Sanctuary) (Fleay 1944a; Fleay 1944b; Sharpe 1994a; Hawkins and Battaglia 2009, except as noted)
    • “Jill” (female), “Jack” (male), and "Corry” (young) garnered international media and public attention, even in the midst of war
    • Next captive breeding did not occur until 1999 (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
  • 1947: David Fleay transported three platypuses (“Betty,” “Penelope,” and “Cecil”) by ship from Australia for exhibition at the Bronx Zoo (Fleay 1958; Crandall 1964)
    • Designated as a gift to President Harry S. Truman (see discussion by Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Received immense media attention (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Visits by the public continued for years (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
  • 1958: David Fleay delivered three more platypuses (by air) to the Bronx Zoo (Cushing and Markwell 2009)

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

  • 2019: San Diego Zoo Safari Park receives 2 platypuses, Eve and Birra, from Sydney's Taronga Zoo (San Diego Zoo Global Public Relations 2019)
    • Housed at Nelson M. Millsberg Platypus Habitat in Walkabout Australia (Safari Park)
    • First export of platypuses from Australia since 1958

Husbandry

General

  • Not widely collected—very difficult to keep in managed care settings (Whittington 1993b; Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Underfeeding, over-handling, and stress (e.g., due to noise, vibrations, temperature fluctuations) can result in illness and death (Jackson 2003; McColl 1983; Cushing and Markwell 2009)
  • Rarely exported from Australia (Cushing and Markwell 2009)
    • Last platypus exported from Australia in 1958 (Cushing and Markwell 2009; Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
  • As of October 2018, not on public display outside of Australia (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
  • Due to presence of venomous spurs, handling of male platypuses requires safety precautions (Grant 2015)
    • Can be handled safely only by grasping the top side of the tail, with arm and all body parts well clear of platypus’ body (Booth and Connolly 2008; Grant 2015)
  • Handling, in general, should be kept to a minimum (Jackson 2003)
  • Platypuses respond well to routines in their daily care (Jackson 2003)
    • Become accustomed to individual keepers

Housing and shelters

  • Air and water temperatures higher than 27°C (80°F) should be avoided (Booth and Connolly 2008)
    • Temperatures above 30°C (86°F) are lethal (Grant 2015)
  • Platypus need a water tank for feeding and exercise (Booth and Connolly 2008)
  • Require a tunnel system connected to nest boxes (Booth and Connolly 2008)
    • Hatches for keeper access needed along tunnels
  • Grooming platforms may be placed at tunnel entrances (Crandall 1964; Booth and Connolly 2008)
  • Enclosure structures should be smooth (Whittington 1993a; Booth and Connolly 2008) and not pose a risk of entanglement (Jackson 2003)
    • Severe abrasions can lead to infections
      • Superficial wounds often heal (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
    • Bill and feet can be injured
    • Physical trauma can lead to death (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
  • Enclosure should have: (Booth and Connolly 2008)
    • Escape-proof latches, walls, and roof
    • Predator-proof roof
    • Submerged and partially submerged branches
    • Ledges and overhangs for grooming and shelter
    • During mating season, nesting materials (grasses and leaves)
  • Housing areas should be kept clean (see Jackson 2003)
  • Considerations for housing platypuses together
    • Adult males should not be housed together (Jackson 2003; Booth and Connolly 2008)
      • Territorial and aggressive towards other males
    • Adult females may compete for food and show aggression towards each other, particularly during breeding season (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
      • May need to be fed in separate pools
      • In some cases, logs or branches can be used to provide visual barriers to reduce possibility of aggressive behavior
    • Males and females should only be housed in enclosures designed for this purpose (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
      • Contain additional space and places for females to hide (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
      • “Passing lane” in tunnel system allows male and female to easily pass each other (Andrew Munro, personal communication, 2018)
        • May spar if in confined spaces
      • Individuals may need to be separated outside of breeding season to prevent male's intense pursuit of females (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)

Diet and feeding

  • Require large amounts of live food (Jackson 2003; Crandall 1964; Sharpe 1994b; Booth and Connolly 2008) — 13-20% of body weight (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018))
    • Lactating females can consume up to 100-150% of body weight, daily
    • Video: Zoos Victoria (diet footage begins at 0:55)
  • Platypuses at Healesville Sanctuary fed ad libitum (i.e., as much and as often as desired) (Thomas et al. 2017; Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
  • Example prey items (Booth and Connolly 2008, except as noted)
    • Note: These prey have been reported in research articles but this is not an example of a recommended diet regime. See Thomas et al. (2017) for information on prey provided for platypuses at Healesville Sanctuary.
    • Worms
      • Mealworms
      • Earthworms
      • Tubifex worms
    • Small freshwater invertebrates
      • Crayfish
      • Fly pupae
      • Shrimp
      • Prawns (live)
    • Small fish
      • Goldfish
      • Trout fingerlings
    • Aquatic insect larvae
    • Grubs (Crandall 1964)
    • Tadpoles (Jackson 2003; Crandall 1964)
    • Crickets (Jackson 2003)
  • Seasonal changes in diet
    • Eat more before and after breeding (Thomas et al. 2017)
      • Eat less during breeding

Breeding

  • Challenging to breed in managed care (Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
    • Successfully bred at a small number of zoos (e.g., Healesville, Taronga) (Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
      • Only 4 females successfully bred, as of 2019 (Bino et al. 2019)
    • Healesville Sanctuary raised 10 offspring from 2008-2015 (Thomas et al. 2018)
  • When receptive in spring, females switch behavior—from avoiding males to initiating contact with males (Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
    • Males also initiate premating interactions
  • Premating interactions (in water) (Hawkins and Fanning 1992; Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
    • Chasing (by male)
    • Nuzzling
    • Swimming together, spiraling
    • Tail biting (by male)
  • Mate in water or possibly in burrow (Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
  • After mating, female prepares burrow; collects wet nesting material (Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
    • Earth mound should be provided (Jackson 2003)
  • Female spends more time foraging during lactation (Holland and Jackson 2002; Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
    • Greater energy demands due to milk production
  • Female spends less time with young as nestlings grow and are ready to emerge from the burrow (Holland and Jackson 2002; Hawkins and Battaglia 2009)
    • Visits young for only very short periods in the last month of care

Enrichment and training

(Jackson 2003; Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)

  • Enrichment
    • Live food
    • Creation of water movement (e.g., waterfall)
      • Waterfall
      • Water jets
      • Bubbles
    • Floating objects (bark, logs)
    • Complexity in burrow design
    • Dirt for female to dig burrow
    • Nesting materials for female (grasses and leaves)
    • Substrates similar to river bottom in the wild (bark, rocks, etc.)
    • Changes in water levels to simulate drought or flood
    • Regular change in furnishings to simulate changing river environment
  • Behavior training
    • Used to assess health (Jessica Thomas, personal communication, 2018)
      • Food or enrichment objects used while checking body condition

Platypus Husbandry

Platypus dives at Taronga Zoo, Australia

A platypus explores its home at the Taronga Zoo, Sydney, Australia.

In zoos, platypuses require water tanks for feeding and exercise. Moving water features can provide enrichment.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Image location: Taronga Zoo, Sydney, Australia

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