The platypus has mystified scientists from its discovery at the end of the eighteenth century. Here is a warm-blooded animal with a soft furry body, a capacity to lay eggs and yet nurse the young without nipples (the milk is secreted through the skin), and with a poisonous gland in the leg of the male. Some researchers considered the most puzzling aspect of the animal to be its “bill.” This duck-like bill is soft, unlike the bill of a bird, and it is critical to the animal finding its food of worms, insect larvae, small crustaceans, molluscs, and freshwater shrimp. The animal feeds at night, frequently in very muddy rivers. Researchers found that the animal closes its eyes, ears, and nostrils to feed and yet eats up to half its body weight in food each day.

One of the early researchers of the platypus was Harry Burrell who proposed in 1927 that the platypus was finding its food not by touch but by some sensory technique unknown to science. Scientists have learned that this sensory technique is electric fields. Electric fields are areas of electric force around an electric charge. Thunderstorms generate strong electric fields, but as a river flows over its bed, weak electric fields form where the water and the riverbed meet. Even local variations in the chemical makeup of water can generate an electric field. Animals give off an electric field when a muscle contracts. In 1986 researchers discovered that when a live battery was placed in a platypus enclosure the animals would come to them, but a dead battery stimulated no interest. Transparent obstacles with an electric field would be avoided, but without the electric field the platypus would bump into them.

Studies of the platypus bill have shown there are nearly a million individual nerve cells running from the bill to the brain. (A human finger tip has about 1,000). These nerve cells are connected to receptors that can react to electric fields as weak as .0002 volts per centimeter.  If the field oscillated at 100 hertz the receptors were especially sensitive, and that is the frequency generated by the flick of a shrimp tail, an earthworm, or an insect larva. The incredible design of the bill and its hardware is so complex we are still trying to understand all that is involved, but it is another testimony to the design and wisdom of God in creating this incredible animal.

Source: Natural History magazine, May 1991, page 31.

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