Looking at the animal skin that had been shipped to him in England from Australia, George Shaw, the keeper of the natural history collection at the British Museum at the turn of the 19th century, was dumbfounded. It was as though someone had taken the webbed feet and bill of a duck and jammed them on to the torso of a fuzzy four-legged mammal. Though he eventually accepted the platypus as authentic, at first he wondered whether someone had stitched various creatures together as a joke.
Two centuries later, the platypus continues to astound scientists. Along with the four species of echidnas, they’re the only mammals that lay eggs. They’re also one of only a few venomous mammals: Male platypuses have poisonous spurs that can cause as much pain as hundreds of hornet stings. (Recently their venom was also found to contain a hormone that might help treat diabetes.)
Moreover, platypuses don’t have functional stomachs—their gullets lead directly to their intestines—and they have 10 sex chromosomes to our measly two. As if this wasn’t enough, scientists discovered this year that platypus fur is biofluorescent, glowing a brilliant blue-green when illuminated by ultraviolet light.
But lately, platypus researchers’ sense of awe by their subjects has been overshadowed by worry. Climate change, human development, drought, and bushfires are ravaging the rivers in eastern Australia that platypuses rely on to feed and mate. Scientists are now urging the national government and several Australian states to list the platypus as vulnerable to extinction, so they can benefit from additional protection and conservation efforts.
Lack of water
Platypuses are notoriously tricky to count due to their skittishness and nocturnal habits, but all signs point to a decline. They seem to have disappeared from more than 22 percent of their habitat over the past 30 years, according a recent report by researchers at the University of New South Wales, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and others.
Historical records further suggest a decrease. “Some records talked about hundreds of thousands of platypus being shot for the use of their fur,” says Tahneal Hawke, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales studying the species’ population dynamics. “Others mentioned spotting 20 platypuses in a single river, whereas the most I’ve ever seen at a time is four.”
When he first saw a platypus skin, 19th century naturalist George Shaw thought someone had stitched the feet and bill of a duck onto the torso of a furry mammal as a joke.
A paper published in February by her colleague Gilad Bino, projects that nearly three-fourths of platypuses could vanish over the next 50 years if climate change continues to worsen as predicted.
Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts as well as heighten the risk of bushfires, like the ones that scorched Australia in 2019 and the beginning of 2020. After those fires, platypuses disappeared from 14 percent of areas where they’d previously been spotted, according to a recent report by Josh Griffiths, an ecologist for the environmental consultancy Cesar Australia, and several colleagues.
Griffiths, who has studied platypuses for 13 years, says the top five threats to platypuses are: “Lack of water, lack of water, lack of water, lack of water, and lack of water.”
Where he works, near Melbourne, he says he’s most worried about urbanization. An increase in roads, sidewalks, and other hard surfaces has created unnaturally rapid stormwater runoff into urban streams, which leads to riverbank erosion, increased sedimentation that drives away platypuses’ aquatic prey, and other challenges.
Dams, too, pose a threat by changing river flow and blocking platypuses’ movement. Richard Kingsford, director of the Center for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, says there are three proposed in his state that he’s particularly worried about.
“The New South Wales government believes it’s going to drought-proof the country, but really all it’s going to do is put another nail in the coffin of these rivers, including those with platypus in them,” he says. “If [they recognize] there’s a vulnerable species there, there would be a much higher bar in terms of getting approval.”
Vulnerable to extinction
The platypus is a globally beloved Australian icon, and it holds special significance for some First Nations, says James Trezise, an environmental policy analyst at the Australia Conservation Foundation. The Wadi Wadi embrace the platypus as one of their totem animals, or spiritual emblems, but it has been years since a platypus has been spotted in their nation.
To ensure the iconic creatures don’t disappear, researchers and advocates, including photographer Doug Gimesy, are petitioning the national government and several Australian states to recognize the platypus as “vulnerable.” In Victoria the state’s Scientific Advisory Committee recommended in late November that the petition be approved. South Australia has already listed the species as endangered.
Categorizing platypuses as threatened on a national level would require the Australian government to increase monitoring efforts of the elusive species and compel officials to consider platypuses when assessing proposals for large development projects, such as dams.
In addition, scientists say they would like to see more thoughtful river regulation; less land clearing for agriculture, which contributes to river erosion; and the banning of “yabby traps,” which are used to catch crustaceans but often ensnare platypus as well.
Eventually, they say they hope the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of species, will also revisit their classification. It listed platypuses as near threatened in 2016, but changing the listing to vulnerable, one step away from endangered, would increase pressure on the Australian government to take action.
“We have a chance to do something here before it’s too late,” Kingsford says. “If they’re not on a list today, or next year, they’ll be in a list in two- or five-years’ time, and we will not have lived up to our obligations of doing something.”