Platypuses are increasingly threatened, scientists say

Notoriously tough to count, the venomous, egg-laying mammals seem to be declining.

Photographs By Doug Gimesy
Published 5 Jan 2021, 10:37 GMT
Platypus researcher and ecologist Josh Griffiths cradles a female platypus he just captured. Researchers are lobbying ...

Platypus researcher and ecologist Josh Griffiths cradles a female platypus he just captured. Researchers are lobbying Australia’s national and state governments to grant the unique species increased protections.

Looking at the animal skin that had been shipped to him in England from Australia, George Shaw, the keeper of the natural history collection at the British Museum at the turn of the 19th century, was dumbfounded. It was as though someone had taken the webbed feet and bill of a duck and jammed them on to the torso of a fuzzy four-legged mammal. Though he eventually accepted the platypus as authentic, at first he wondered whether someone had stitched various creatures together as a joke.

Two centuries later, the platypus continues to astound scientists. Along with the four species of echidnas, they’re the only mammals that lay eggs. They’re also one of only a few venomous mammals: Male platypuses have poisonous spurs that can cause as much pain as hundreds of hornet stings. (Recently their venom was also found to contain a hormone that might help treat diabetes.)

Moreover, platypuses don’t have stomachs—their gullets lead directly to their intestines—and they have 10 sex chromosomes to our measly two. As if this wasn’t enough, scientists discovered last year that platypus fur is biofluorescent, glowing a brilliant blue-green when illuminated by ultraviolet light.

Tahneal Hawke of the University of New South Wales releases a platypus back into the Mita Mita River in Victoria. Researchers catch them to assess their health, take genetic samples, and implant microchips.

A young platypus has just been released onto a log in McMahons Creek in the state of Victoria. Researchers work quickly so they don’t keep their subjects out of the water for longer than half an hour.

But lately, platypus researchers’ sense of awe by their subjects has been overshadowed by worry. Climate change, human development, drought, and bushfires are ravaging the rivers in eastern Australia that platypuses rely on to feed and mate. Scientists are now urging the national government and several Australian states to list the platypus as vulnerable to extinction, so they can benefit from additional protection and conservation efforts.

Lack of water

Platypuses are notoriously tricky to count due to their skittishness and nocturnal habits, but all signs point to a decline. They seem to have disappeared from more than 22 percent of their habitat over the past 30 years, according a recent report by researchers at the University of New South Wales, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and others.

Historical records further suggest a decrease. “Some records talked about hundreds of thousands of platypus being shot for the use of their fur,” says Tahneal Hawke, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales studying the species’ population dynamics. “Others mentioned spotting 20 platypuses in a single river, whereas the most I’ve ever seen at a time is four.”

Josh Griffiths and researcher Farley Connelly set out nets to capture platypuses. After sunset, they'll check the nets every three or four hours and then remove them at dawn.

A paper published in February by her colleague Gilad Bino, projects that nearly three-fourths of platypuses could vanish over the next 50 years if climate change continues to worsen as predicted.

Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts as well as heighten the risk of bushfires, like the ones that scorched Australia in 2019 and the beginning of 2020. After those fires, platypuses disappeared from 14 percent of areas where they’d previously been spotted, according to a recent report by Josh Griffiths, an ecologist for the environmental consultancy Cesar Australia, and several colleagues.

Griffiths, who has studied platypuses for 13 years, says the top five threats to platypuses are: “Lack of water, lack of water, lack of water, lack of water, and lack of water.”

Where he works, near Melbourne, he says he’s most worried about urbanisation. An increase in roads, sidewalks, and other hard surfaces has created unnaturally rapid stormwater runoff into urban streams, which leads to riverbank erosion, increased sedimentation that drives away platypuses’ aquatic prey, and other challenges.

Dams, too, pose a threat by changing river flow and blocking platypuses’ movement. Richard Kingsford, director of the Center for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, says there are three proposed in his state that he’s particularly worried about.

“The New South Wales government believes it’s going to drought-proof the country, but really all it’s going to do is put another nail in the coffin of these rivers, including those with platypus in them,” he says. “If [they recognise] there’s a vulnerable species there, there would be a much higher bar in terms of getting approval.”

Vulnerable to extinction

The platypus is a globally beloved Australian icon, and it holds special significance for some First Nations, says James Trezise, an environmental policy analyst at the Australia Conservation Foundation. The Wadi Wadi embrace the platypus as one of their totem animals, or spiritual emblems, but it has been years since a platypus has been spotted in their nation.

To ensure the iconic creatures don’t disappear, researchers and advocates, including photographer Doug Gimesy, are petitioning the national government and several Australian states to recognise the platypus as “vulnerable.” In Victoria the state’s Scientific Advisory Committee recommended in late November that the petition be approved. South Australia has already listed the species as endangered.

Categorising platypuses as threatened on a national level would require the Australian government to increase monitoring efforts of the elusive species and compel officials to consider platypuses when assessing proposals for large development projects, such as dams.

In addition, scientists say they would like to see more thoughtful river regulation; less land clearing for agriculture, which contributes to river erosion; and the banning of “yabby traps,” which are used to catch crustaceans but often ensnare platypus as well.

Gilad Bino and Tahneal Hawke glue a temporary radio transponder to the tail of a female platypus. The transponder will help them gather information about platypus movements and the effects of water releases from a dam upstream.

Eventually, they say they hope the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of species, will also revisit their classification. It listed platypuses as near threatened in 2016, but changing the listing to vulnerable, one step away from endangered, would increase pressure on the Australian government to take action.

“We have a chance to do something here before it’s too late,” Kingsford says. “If they’re not on a list today, or next year, they’ll be in a list in two- or five-years’ time, and we will not have lived up to our obligations of doing something.”

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