The platypus: another impending extinction?
Words: Samantha Ward
The duck-billed platypus has always been something of an enigma.
When the first pelt and sketch were sent back to Europe at the end of the 18th century, many British scientists refused to accept the platypus was a real organism. Instead, they believed it was an assortment of animal parts that had been sewn together as a hoax. Its duck-like bill, webbed feet, glossy fur, and beaver-like tail make it an unusual creature in many regards.
Fast forward over two hundred years and this lack of understanding has morphed into an admiration for this animal. In 1939 the National Geographic magazine introduced the platypus to the world by publishing an article about its notoriety of being very difficult to raise in captivity. Now, Healesville Sanctuary, one of the Zoos Victoria branches, boasts the title of being the first institution to successfully breed a captive platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Not only do tourists flock to see these paradoxical beings at wildlife sanctuaries, but companies, such as Taronga Zoo, also emblazon images of them within their logos and merchandise.
So, why are they so fascinating?
Platypuses are, along with the four species of echidna, the only living ‘monotremes’; a group of mammals that lay eggs. They are primarily nocturnal, swimming in creeks to look for worms, shrimps, and larvae to feed on. Their thick fur provides insulation by trapping and warming air beside their skin. Their leathery bills contain nerves that can sense faint electrical pulses created by other animals. ‘Electroreception’, as it is called, is a phenomenon found in no other mammal. Furthermore, male platypuses have venomous spurs on their hind legs, containing toxins that can kill small animals and even incapacitate a human!
Venomous spur! Credit: platypusSPOT
‘I remember seeing platypuses all the time in the creek behind my house when I was a child,’, a Victorian gentleman told me recently, ‘but you don’t really see them any more’. This statement, unfortunately, was resoundingly similar to others I had heard from locals.
It made me wonder…where have all the platypuses gone?
Platypuses may have lived alongside humans for centuries, yet our presence is rapidly affecting the health of the waterways they inhabit. Household products such as plastic bags and rubber bands littering creeks can suffocate or strangle individuals. Detergents and other harmful chemicals leaching into streams can reduce the water quality, posing huge risks for the survival of these unique creatures. Reduction in flows due to climate change, diversion of water for human use and irrigation, and dam construction are all threats to platypuses. Furthermore, land-clearing erodes river banks, ultimately leading to a reduction in platypus shelter and food availability. Vegetation cover is essential to protect platypuses from cats, dogs, and foxes; predators introduced into Australia by humans. Us.
And this is only the start…
Within the last week the shocking news emerged that eight platypuses were found dead within a fishing trap in the Werribee River. Perhaps erected with the intention of catching yabbies, the net enticed platypuses that may have been chasing their prey. Once inside the net, they could not escape and subsequently drowned. See http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-10/eight-platypuses-found-dead-in-fishing-trap-in-werribee-river/10221950 for the full article.
So, what can we do to help?
A partnership between cesar, the University of Melbourne, and Melbourne Water was created to answer that very question.
Josh Griffiths, a senior ecologist at cesar, monitors populations of platypuses, assesses their habitats and identifies conservation threats. Ground-breaking new science in the form of environmental DNA (eDNA) and acoustic telemetry is harnessed to assist with the monitoring. I had the pleasure of accompanying Josh on one of his research trips in 2016. This experience left me both amazed by the uniqueness of these animals and shocked by the sheer number of dangers they face: Dangers that we could easily eliminate.
Assisting with platypus monitoring. Credit: Author’s own.
For a full list of the threats and hazards these beautiful animals are battling, I would recommend visiting http://platypusspot.org and downloading the app. This wonderful citizen science platform, created by the people at cesar, enables you to report any platypus sightings to assist in their conservation.
The website also suggests that you can help platypuses by making the smallest of adjustments in your day-to-day life. By conserving water, monitoring dogs around waterways, replacing opera house nets for alternative fishing methods such as hoop nets, and discarding litter and chemicals appropriately, you can save the platypus from disappearing.
It’s not all bad news…
Although these creatures face a number of threats, their resilience has paid off and they remain relatively widespread. Some areas have been affected more than others, but we currently do not have enough data to properly understand how threatened the platypus is. However, Australia is the only country that this iconic animal calls home and we must ensure we do our very best to protect it before it is too late.