WILD LIFE | 04.18.19
Plight of the Platypus
The more scientists learn about this strange, elusive species, the more concerned they become about its future. But these new insights may ultimately help to save it.
) has a long history of confounding the humans who’ve encountered it. Early European settlers took to calling the strange, semi-aquatic mammals they found living in eastern Australian streams “duckmoles.” When Captain John Hunter, the second governor of the New South Wales colony, sent a specimen of the creature to British naturalist George Shaw in 1798, Shaw initially thought it was a hoax. Thus ensued “a rivalry that pitted nation against nation, naturalist against naturalist, and professional against amateur,” wrote evolutionary biologist Brian K. Hall in a 1999 BioScience article on the history of scientific debate over the species. “Long after the evidence was wrested from Nature half a world away from where the debate raged, biologists continued to argue about this paradoxical creature.”
For much of the two centuries since Western scientists began trying to make sense of this furry egg-laying animal—which shares its reproductive strategy with only one other mammal, the echidna—the scientific literature amounted to little more than descriptions of its odd looks, historical accounts of sightings in this river or that, and cursory observations about its anatomy and life history. That’s largely because, unlike other iconic Australian species like the slow-moving, tree-hugging koala or the ubiquitous kangaroo, platypuses are maddeningly difficult to study. Active at night and living much of their lives underwater, their habits are the opposite of their human observers’. "And beyond that,” says Geoff Williams of the Australian Platypus Conservancy, “everything you typically use in research, you can’t use with the platypus. You can’t look for tracks, and they defecate in the water, so you can’t look for scat."
“The biggest thing we’re learning is that platypuses are in trouble,” says Joshua Griffiths, a biologist for an environmental consulting firm on the outskirts of Melbourne who has spent many sleepless nights capturing platypuses in area streams to learn more about the secretive animals. While some populations are faring well, these tend to be in remote, wild areas. Where the human imprint has altered the platypus’s native waterways, habitat fragmentation, water pollution, fishing nets, dams, and urban development have pushed many populations into decline, Griffiths says.
Yet many of the same insights into the platypus’s status and the threats it faces have also begun to illuminate a path toward recovery that could spare the species the grim fate that so many of Australia’s other endemic creatures have met. In a country with the world’s highest mammal extinction rate, platypuses could defy the odds—if there’s enough public and political will to protect them.
Current Platypus Distribution
What Kingsford, Griffiths, and other researchers have learned has certainly confirmed the platypus’s reputation as one of the world’s strangest animals. For example, scientists suspect that the venomous spurs that males are born with on their hind legs may be used as weapons against rivals during the breeding season. After mating, females retreat to the safety of a burrow they’ve excavated into the riverbank. There they lay one or two eggs and incubate them under their wide tails. While it takes only about 10 days for the eggs to hatch, mothers then nurse their young for up to four months until they’re developed enough to venture outside the burrow and forage for themselves.
“They are probably the most difficult species I’ve ever worked on,” says Griffiths, who nevertheless has dedicated the past 12 years of his life to understanding them. One of Australia’s foremost platypus experts, he works with city water officials to study and monitor populations in waterways in and around Melbourne. “There’s a number of challenges with platypuses, and it’s one of the reasons we don’t have good data on them,” he says.
A recently completed three-year national survey by Kingsford, Griffiths and a dozen other researchers combined information from capture-and-release surveys, studies that used acoustic sensors to track platypus movements, environmental DNA data, and historical accounts to sketch out the species’ abundance and distribution, and determine where it’s at risk. The Australian Research Council-funded study, to be published later this month, found that the species is worse off than scientists expected and warns that if the threats that some platypus populations are up against are not dealt with swiftly, the species’ status will only deteriorate further. Using some of the same information, the IUCN downgraded the species’ status to Near Threatened in 2016. Despite this, the platypus has yet to be protected nationally under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act or at the state level—except in the state of South Australia, where the species is barely hanging on and is listed as endangered.
Tiana Preston, who oversees Melbourne Water’s platypus conservation program, says that the agency is using these research findings to help reduce the many threats that platypuses face. For example, the agency knows now that storm runoff from parking lots and other paved surfaces can flood critical habitat and inundate platypus burrows. To help prevent this, Melbourne Water is working with developers and communities in the city—one of Australia’s fastest-growing—to educate them about the risks to platypuses and encourage them to install permeable pavement that allows rainwater soak into the ground instead, and to put in green roofs to capture rainfall.
This is just one of many fixes that Griffiths and other researchers say are needed across the platypus’s range. Replanting trees along streams, keeping livestock away from riverside habitat that’s still intact, restoring natural streamflows, cleaning up polluted waterways and imposing a nationwide ban on opera house traps are all measures that would help to protect platypuses, they say.
What is beyond dispute is that the platypus, once so common that it was thought to be an indelible part of the Australian landscape, is now in need of help from its greatest threat: people. "I think we’ve seen beyond any shadow of a doubt that the platypus isn’t a species we can take for granted,” says Williams.
ABOUT THE Photographer
Douglas Gimesy is a conservation and wildlife photojournalist who focuses on Australian issues. His work has been published inNational Geographic, Australian Geographic, The New York Times
, and other newspapers and magazines. A contributing photographer to National Geographic Creative, Gimesy is also governor of the World Wide Fund for Nature (Australia), and an Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
ABOUT THE Writer
April Reese is a freelance science writer and editor currently based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over her 17-year career, she has reported on shrimp farms in Thailand, the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, and wildfires across the western U.S., among other topics. Her byline has appeared inScience, Nature, Smithsonian, Scientific American, Discover
(where she was an editor),National Geographic News, High Country News, The Open Notebook
, andNieman Storyboard,
Douglas Gimesy April Reese
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