The sensory world of the platypus

J. D. Pettigrew, P. R. Manger, S. L. B. Fine

Abstract

Vision, audition and somatic sensation in the platypus are reviewed. Recent work on the eye and retinal ganglion cell layer of the platypus is presented that provides an estimate of visual acuity and suggests that platypus ancestors may have used vision, as well as the bill organ, for underwater predation. The combined electroreceptor and mechanoreceptor array in the bill is considered in detail, with special reference to the elaborate cortical structure, where inputs from these two sensory arrays are integrated in a manner that is astonishingly similar to the stripe–like ocular dominance array in primate visual cortex, that integrates input from the two eyes. A new hypothesis, along with supporting data, is presented for this combined mechanoreceptive–electroreceptive complex in platypus cortex. Bill mechanoreceptors are shown to be capable of detecting mechanical waves travelling through the water from moving prey. These mechanical waves arrive after the electrical activity from the same prey, as a function of distance. Bimodal cortical neurones, sensitive to combined mechanical and electrical stimulation, with a delay, can thus signal directly the absolute distance of the prey. Combined with the directional information provided by signal processing of the thousands of receptors on the bill surface, the stripe–like cortical array enables the platypus to use two different sensory systems in its bill to achieve a complete, three–dimensional ‘fix’ on its underwater prey.