Platypus on the EDGE


The platypus (Ornithorynchus anatinus) is a unique and iconic egg laying mammal that is the only living representative of its family and genus. Sadly it looks like it is moving towards becoming an EDGE species. What’s an EDGE species you ask? One that is Evolutionary Distinct and Global Endangered. In other words, a species that once it’s gone, its gone and there is no other species even remotely close left. Australia already has too many of these.

Once incredibly abundant along the east coast of Australia, their conservation status was recently upgrade from ‘least concern’ to ‘vulnerable‘ and multiple compounding factors all conspire to start driving this species towards reduced distribution and localised multiple extinction events (e.g. news report here). In Victoria for example, there has been a contraction in distribution combined with localised extensions along with significant declines in local population abundance.

Human driven threats include:
– Creating large river impoundments that are too deep for platypus to feed.
– Climate change
– Habitat destruction from urban and rural development
– Reduced river flows as a result of drought, increased residential and commercial water withdrawal and the creation of dams
– Forestry and agricultural practices that impact 
bank erosion, bed destabilisation and increase sedimentation
– So called ‘River improvements’ that impact the suitability of streams and rivers for platypus
– Sudden increases in river flows as a result of flash floods, dam releases, and urban storm water run off
– Drowning from entanglement in recreational enclosed yabby traps (such as in opera house nets) and fishing lines
– Trauma from fishing lines, fishing hooks, and other plastic pollution like girls hair ties and rubber bands (in which they get their heads caught in)
– Predation due to shallow water and lack of cover on banks
– Chemical and biological river pollution
– Localised extinction events which isolate populations and so fracturing genetic diversity

Interesting facts
– People originally thought they were a fake animal
– Discoveries in platypus milk could help fight superbugs (news link here)
– Platypus avoid streams in logged areas
– Platypus young drink their mothers milk by licking it of their skin
– Platypus can visit more than burrows in one night
– Platypus dive limit is around 2-3 minutes
– Australia once sent a platypus to Wintson Churchill, however it died before getting there (link here)
– Platypus lay eggs, have very small stomachs and adults have no teeth. The adults grind their food with hard tooth-like structures (made from keratin) that replace the teeth
– Male platypus have a bifurcated penis
– Platypus are venomous, and  very few mammals are. Males have venomous spurs on their back ankles
– Platypus have 10 sex chromosomes (5 pairs) – most mammals typically have just two (i.e. a single pair)
– The platypus is the only living representative of its family and genus
– Their family is older than dinosaurs and with the first fossil platypus relatives (Monotrematum sudamericanum) date back 61 millions years from Patagonia – showing how widespread they used to be (link here) and a one meter long relative (Obdurodon tharalkooschildswam through freshwater pools in Australian forests about 5 to 15 million years ago
– Some Aboriginal dreamtime stories explain that the platypus resulting from the mating of a large water rat with a duck
– Platypus swim underwater with their eyes closed and ‘see’ using electrical sensors in their bills
– As one of the top predators in many Australian waterways, platypuses help maintain ecosystem balance and water health

A new an important initiative – The Platypus Conservation Initiative, driven from the University of NSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, has partnered with Taronga Zoo and assembled a national team of experts in the field to investigate issues like:
> Genetic diversity across regions, gene flow and connectivity
> Platypus movement up and down rivers, particularly with young
> Overall health including parasite and load and viral infections
> Diet and food web connectivity
> Historical changes to their distribution
> Threats to their conservation and what can be done to mitigate this

If we know and fully understand the threats and impacts, at least Australians can do something….if they want, and sometimes they will. 

Additionally use of environmental DNA (eDNA) in rivers and streams  is helping to more easily determine where they are. eDNA is a simple method to detect traces of platypus DNA in water waterway to show whether these elusive animals are present in an area without having to catch them. Just recently the use of this technology led to a potential housing development being cancelled (link here).

What am I doing?
Awareness and education:
My hope is that in further raising awareness of the human made issues we are creating for this little monotreme, that maybe we (i.e. Australians) will act before it is to late. We can’t allow the platypus to move from being ‘near threatened’ to being ‘vulnerable’ to extinction.  We just can’t.

To help raise awareness, over the last few years I have had a pieces published by National Geographic, Australian Geographic, BBC wildlife, Biographic, and The Big Issue, as well a piece specifically on the dangers of enclosed yabby traps (link here). I will continue to  work on expanding my platypus gallery and get further stories published. 

Most recently, I have facilitated a grant from AWS  to produce promotional materials (examples below) and arrange for platypus expert Josh Griffiths (from platypusSPOT) to run a series of Victorian regional school based education sessions to engage children and the community about the platypus, and what they can do to help ensure it survives and thrives. These talks will run over late 2019 and 2010.

Government protection:
In mid 2018 I submitted an application to the Victorian Government suggesting the platypus be listed as threatened under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. This is still under review by the government.
I also chaired the Victoria Alliance for Platypus-Safe Yabby Traps, and am pleased to say, in 2019, we managed to get the platypus drowning enclosed yabby trap banned in Victoria

What can you do?
If you live in Australia, there are lots of things you can do to help. For example:
1) Use less water  – even at home – it allows more to be released from dams into their home environment
2) Help keep our rivers clean and healthy. For example, pick up any plastic rings you find (e.g. hair ties, rubber bands) as platypus can get their heads caught in these
3) Fish responsibly

Also, if you sometimes visit places where you may see a platypus, please download the app ‘PlatypusSPOT’, and report any sightings. As a citizen science initiative, then more information we have about this elusive mammal, the better position we will be to help conserve and protect them.