200123 platypus on the brink planet platypus in river credit manuel romaris getty

The platypus is in big trouble

Australia’s devastating drought is having a critical impact on the iconic platypus, a globally unique mammal, with increasing reports of rivers drying up and platypuses becoming stranded.

A team of researchers, led by UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, has examined, for the first time, the risks of extinction for this intriguing animal.

The study, which is published in the journal Biological Conservation, examines the potentially devastating combination of threats to platypus populations, including water resource development, land clearing, climate change and increasingly severe periods of drought.

“Urgent need” for action to prevent the platypus disappearing

“There is an urgent need to implement national conservation efforts for this unique mammal and other species by increasing monitoring, tracking trends, mitigating threats, and protecting and improving management of freshwater habitats,” says lead author Gilad Bino from the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science.

Alarmingly, the study estimated that under current climate conditions and due to land clearing and fragmentation by dams, platypus numbers almost halved, leading to the extinction of local populations across about 40 per cent of the species’ range, reflecting ongoing declines since European colonisation.

Under predicted climate change, the losses forecast were far greater because of increases in extreme drought frequencies and duration, such as the current dry spell.

Bino adds: “These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions with no capacity to repopulate areas.”

Documented declines and local extinctions of the platypus show a species facing considerable risks, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently downgraded the platypus’ conservation status to “Near Threatened”.

Mitigating the threats faced by the platypus will need national action, say researchers. Credit: Tahnael Hawke

But the platypus remains unlisted in most jurisdictions in Australia – except South Australia, where it is endangered.

Bino says the researchers’ paper added to the increasing body of evidence which showed that the platypus, like many other native Australian species, was on the path to extinction.

Human development is a major threat

Director of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science and study co-author Richard Kingsford says it was unfortunate that platypuses lived in areas undergoing extensive human development that threatened their lives and long-term viability.

“These include dams that stop their movements, agriculture which can destroy their burrows, fishing gear and yabby traps which can drown them and invasive foxes which can kill them,” Kingsford says.

Platypuses were once considered widespread across the eastern Australian mainland and Tasmania, although not a lot is known about their distribution or abundance because of the species’ secretive and nocturnal nature.

Study co-author Brendan Wintle at The University of Melbourne says it was important that preventative measures were taken now.

“Even for a presumed ‘safe’ species such as the platypus, mitigating or even stopping threats, such as new dams, is likely to be more effective than waiting for the risk of extinction to increase and possible failure.”

“We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs.”

“There is an urgent need to implement national conservation efforts for this unique mammal and other species by increasing monitoring, tracking trends, mitigating threats, and protecting and improving management of freshwater habitats.”

The platypus research team is continuing to research the ecology and conservation of this enigmatic animal, collaborating with the Taronga Conservation Society, to ensure its future by providing information for effective policy and management.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.