Platypuses – undoubtedly one of nature’s strangest creations – are being pushed towards the brink of extinction.
If current threats persist, platypus numbers could plummet by up to 66 percent over the next 50 years, leading to the extinction of local populations across about 40 percent of the species’ dwindling range.
That’s according to a new study, published in the journal Biological Conservation this week, in which researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) looked at the risk of extinction among platypus populations and the numerous ecological threats they face.
Platypuses (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) were once considered widespread across the rivers of eastern Australia and the island of Tasmania. While the species is currently listed as “near threatened” by the IUCN Red List, the new research argues that this notoriously shy species is facing grave danger.
Their plight is mainly due to the destruction and disruption of their habitat. Water infrastructure development, such as the construction of dams, and land clearing have long threatened this river-dwelling species. Not only are those threats becoming increasingly more aggressive, but the platypus now faces the new dangers of climate change and increasingly severe periods of drought.
"These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions, with no capacity to repopulate areas," Dr Gilad Bino, lead author of the study from UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, said in a statement.
“These include dams that stop their movements, agriculture which can destroy their burrows, fishing gear and yabby traps [a type of fishing net] which can drown them, and invasive foxes which can kill them,” added Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science and study co-author.
Despite these threats, the platypus remains unlisted in most Australian jurisdictions, except for South Australia where it is endangered. The researchers argue that action must be taken now before these beloved little freaks disappear from Australia's waterways forever.
“There is an urgent need for a national risk assessment for the platypus to assess its conservation status, evaluate risks and impacts, and prioritize management in order to minimize any risk of extinction,” continued Dr Bino.
As you can tell just by looking at them – with their duck-like bill, beaver-like tail, and otter-like feet – this animal is truly unique. It is one of the planet’s only egg-laying mammals, one of the very few venomous mammals (the males have venomous spurs on their hind feet), and can locate its prey by detecting electric fields, like a shark.
It’s also the only living representative of its taxonomic family (Ornithorhynchidae) and genus (Ornithorhynchus). It’s closest living relatives are monotremes, a group of equally bizarre mammals that only includes platypus and four species of echidnas. To lose something so unique would be a tragedy.