Australia's elusive platypus faces many threats to its survival in the wild

Platypus Broken River, Queensland, Australia

Platypus Broken River, Queensland, Australia – Image courtesy Flickr user Ian Sutton (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I have only seen one platypus in the wild in my three-quarters of a century, despite extensive travels across Australia’s vast outdoors. It was in a pool below a waterfall on the Atherton Tablelands in Northern Queensland.

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is an unusual species. It is a monotreme, an egg-laying mammal.

August was Australia's national month for this elusive animal. The Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute celebrated its iconic status:

Platypuses are iconic Australian animals, one of the world’s few species of monotremes, mammals that lay eggs, with the other being the Echidna. This national Platypus month, we pay tribute to these iconic animals, some of whom hide away in the lakes of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The word “Platypus” derives from the Greek word meaning “flat footed”, with the semi-aquatic creature using its knuckles to walk on land to protect the webbing of its feet, which are primarily used to propel itself through water. What many people don’t know about Platypuses is that the males are actually venomous, with a spur on the hind leg connected to a gland which produces poison. Luckily, this poison cannot kill humans, although it can cause severe pain. I guess it is because the Platypuses are so cute that nobody would ever dream of thinking of them this way.

In 2016, Julie Howlin's blog listed it's Topical Ten interesting facts about the platypus. My favourite is:

9. The weirdness of the platypus extends to chromosome level. Most mammals have two chromosomes which determine sex – X and Y. The platypus has ten, so a male platypus is XYXYXYXYXY.

A check at nature.com supports this statement:

Mammals are pretty boring when it comes to sex chromosomes. The platypus is a huge exception.

The platypus faces many challenges, including habitat loss; polluted and degraded waterways; plus housing development, dam construction, and mining and industrial activity, which disrupt its habitat.

In May 2020, Zoos Victoria introduced Storm, the latest arrival in their platypus breeding program at Healesville Sanctuary:

Believe it or not, Healesville Sanctuary also has sniffer dogs, which are being used as part of a platypus tracking program:

Dr Jessica Thomas, a platypus specialist at Healesville, said the species was particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather brought by climate change.

They are notoriously difficult to find or trap, which is where the six expert dogs that form part of the wildlife detection dog program at Healesville Sanctuary, in regional Victoria, come in. These dogs – including a kelpie cross, a labrador and a spaniel cross – have been trained to find wildlife (or their scat) by odour, and can detect live platypus in their burrows.

The platypus is listed as endangered in South Australia and vulnerable in Victoria. Humans need to stop altering platypus habitat, Thomas said, pointing to how the successful introduction of marine protection areas was a boon for vulnerable ocean species.

John’s comment on this story underlines the need to find ways of monitoring platypus numbers:

If much about their numbers remains unknown how do we know they are in a slow decline? Is it just the vibe?

It is difficult to know if such an elusive species is endangered, as its numbers are hard to estimate. Nevertheless, it may face local extinction in some areas. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has launched a campaign, the platy-project, with the University of New South Wales to protect it from possible extinction. During September, the ACF is encouraging people to spot and record these rarely-seen creatures:

Gina chick is a platy super-hero! 🦸🌟Gina has joined forces with ACF and UNSW to help protect the iconic platypus from #extinction. 💪And you can join her! All you need is your local creek/river and some eagle eyes. 👀Learn more and sign up today: https://acf.to/3QKvMz5 #platypus #platyproject

Posted by Australian Conservation Foundation on Thursday, August 10, 2023

In New South Wales, scientists hold fears for ten platypuses involved in a rehoming conservation project. Contamination from a mining site threatens their food supply. Manly Blog shared their concern on Mastodon:

In November 2022, a Tasmanian platypus called Larila received overseas media attention following her death after being entangled in twine. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has produced a special report about Larila: Our platypus are in crisis and need our help.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) studied the viability of the species in 2014, concluding two years later that it was “near threatened.”

Distribution of the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Map of the distribution of the Platypus (Ornitorhynchus anatinus), according to the IUCN database) -Image courtesy Tentotwo, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2019, National Geographic explored the dangers faced by platypuses. They focused on a University of New South Wales study:

While the platypus is considered widespread, occupying an extensive range across eastern Australia, there are several lines of evidence that indicate declines in distribution and abundances.

National Geographic warned:

In general… experts are on the same page that platypuses are struggling and will continue to decline if nothing changes.

According to Tiana Preston, a researcher they interviewed:

Everyone that you meet, they have this story about when they've seen a platypus in the wild. And when they tell the story, they light up…[but] it’s becoming rarer and rarer for kids to have that.

I have been told that platypuses can be seen at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve, as well as the Molonglo River. All these places are in the Australian Capital Territory.

Finally, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggests the symbolic action of adopting a platypus. It is part of their ‘rewilding’ work:

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