Australia’s Droughts and Fires Present New Dangers to the Platypus

Threats to the semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammals demand action, experts say

researcher holds platypus
A researcher holds a platypus for a Melbourne Water study conducted in 2017. Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

With webbed feet, beaver-like tails, duck bills, water-resistant coats and venom-secreting spurs on their hind legs, platypuses might be Australia’s most mysterious and charismatic monotreme, or primitive egg-laying mammals. But like so much of Australia's unique wildlife, these semiaquatic creatures face a mix of threats. A new study suggests that by 2070, platypus abundance could fall by 47 to 66 percent. In 40 percent of the its current range, the platypus could disappear entirely.

The study, published in Biological Conservation, looks at current platypus population data and predicts how it will look 50 years from now, taking into account growing environmental threats. Platypuses are currently classified as near-threatened on the IUCN's Red List. But given these trends, the researchers say that reclassifying them as “vulnerable” and investing more in conservation efforts is vital to platypuses’ long-term survival.

The biggest hurdle that stands in the way of helping these critters is getting an accurate count of how many—or how few—are still in the wild, as study author Tahneal Hawke, a researcher with the Platypus Conservation Initiative, tells National Geographics Christie Wilcox.

“We have a huge area across the range of the platypus where we literally don't know if they're even there or in what numbers if they are,” Hawke says.

In a paper published in August 2019 in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, Hawke and co-author Gilad Bino, conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales, found that platypus populations before European settlers arrived were higher than previously thought. While previous estimates suggested platypus populations had fallen by 30 percent since the 1600s, the researchers estimated that the population may have fallen by more than half.

Until hunting them was outlawed in the 20th century, platypuses were valued for their soft, water-resistant fur. Historical records revealed that platypus pelts were sold by the thousands, and they may never have recovered. Today, the mortality rate for juveniles is high—and likely to get worse as Australia’s years-long drought continues.

Temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit are lethal to platypuses, which avoid the heat by being active at night and spending time in the water and underground burrows. Recently, drought and wildfires are drying up the shallow waters where platypuses live and hunt.

Platypus young usually leave their mothers’ burrows in January and February, so this year, many of them will probably die, platypus expert Tom Grant of the University of New South Wales, tells Sabrina Imbler at Atlas Obscura via email. “They will be attempting to find their own food in streams devastated by the fires and in many cases reduced to disconnected refuge pools by the current severe drought,” Grant writes.

And because platypuses are so finicky, conservationists struggle to find ways to help them directly. Australia's National Parks staff was able to air-drop vegetables to stranded wallaby populations, for example, but the same strategy wouldn’t work for platypuses—they only eat live prey. And existing refuge pools are already surrounded by fierce competition in the drought, so moving stranded platypuses to water could increase strain on that environment.

Zoo and other wildlife facility staff are already stretched thin caring for animals displaced by unprecedented bushfires, so caring for a picky, venomous creature that eats 15 percent of its body weight each day would require more resources than might currently be available, Atlas Obscura reports.

For now, platypuses are minimally protected by Australian environmental law. But per the Guardian’s Adam Morton, an overhaul of Australia’s threatened species regulations might be on the horizon following the apocalyptic bushfires.

“There’s a desperate need for more information, and for government funds to monitor platypuses,” Bino tells Atlas Obscura. “Not knowing what’s going on is not an excuse to assume everything is fine.”

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