Scientists Asking for Your Help to Unpack Platypus Enigma

Scientists Asking for Your Help to Unpack Platypus Enigma
A platypus receives a health check at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, on June 9, 2021. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Australia is home to one of earth’s great peculiarities in the platypus but there’s only a broad estimate of how many of them are left.

Experts fear that without good data, the duck-billed, egg-laying, milk-producing yet nipple-less enigma could be silently sliding further towards peril.

But a citizen science project is helping to plug the gaps and examine how they have been affected by recent fires and floods.

Australians who live near creeks and rivers are being urged to venture out in an effort to better understand the abundance and range of the species.

It’s no easy task given platypuses are notoriously shy and generally solitary but the first effort in 2022 spotted 860, from far-north Queensland, through New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, to Tasmania and on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island.

Citizen scientists found them at 59 locations where the species hadn’t been recorded for more than a decade, and at 45 sites where they were documented for the very first time.

The Platy-project is a partnership between the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the University of NSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science.

ACF nature campaigner Jess Abrahams said it was important to understand where platypuses were thriving and struggling, especially with expectations of El Nino delivering another dry spell for Australia.

“We don’t know how the coming El Nino summer will affect platypus numbers, but heatwaves, bushfires, and rivers drying out are likely to be detrimental,” she said.

“A study of the impact of bushfires on the species estimated a 14 to 18 percent decline in platypus populations in fire-affected areas in the nine months following the Black Summer fires.”

A Lot Unknown

UNSW conservation ecologist Gilad Bino worked on a 2021 national assessment of the conservation status of the platypus.

He says there’s so much uncertainty about how many are left that it could sit anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000.

There’s no national or state level monitoring frameworks for the species despite evidence of shrinking populations in places like greater Melbourne.

“That would be true for all urban areas, but we don’t have the data,” he said.

Populations are also in decline in parts of the Murray-Darling river system, and there have been localised extinctions in Brisbane.

“In South Australia, they are pretty much extinct except for an introduced population on Kangaroo Island and even they’ve been impacted by bushfires and drought,” he said.

Mr. Bino hopes Australians will join the Platy-project and help firm up knowledge about where they still exist, and in what abundance.

“I don’t think platypus are going to disappear, and I hope I’m right, in the next several decades. But what I do fear is that for many people across Australia, they’re going to see them disappear from their local rivers.

“And that’s really concerning and something we should all care about.”

The platypus is listed as endangered under South Australian law, and vulnerable in Victoria, but is yet to be classed as threatened under federal laws.

That’s due to uncertainty about whether the key criteria of a 30 percent decline has occurred.

Mr. Bino says he took Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek out on some platypus surveys a few months ago and explained why better data is crucial.

“We need a systematic approach to surveying rivers periodically, over time, across the range of the species,” he said.

“The cost, compared to nuclear submarines, it’s not a lot. It’s a matter of getting the political will to do that.”

The minister’s office referred AAP’s questions to the environment department, which said better data would improve the prospects of the platypus.

It said the Australian government had invested over $16 million in platypus conservation activities following the Black Summer bushfires, including habitat restoration and protection, threat management, and research.

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