The platypus is one of nature’s great oddities. A study that sequenced their genome was able to unravel some of its mysteries, including (but by no means limited to) the fact that it lays eggs, sweats milk, has 10 sex chromosomes, and glows under UV light (a trait shared by many Australian animals). A pretty otherworldly animal – but unfortunately, a new study has found they still suffer at the hands of a menace that’s very much Earthly: human rubbish.
Their tapered shape makes these animals adept swimmers who can slide around on riverbeds searching for food. Unfortunately, it also makes them just the right size and shape for slipping through loops of plastic, rubber, or metal, says a study published in the journal Australian Mammalogy.
Researchers on the paper looked at 54 cases of litter entanglement recorded in live-trapping surveys in Victoria, Australia. These revealed that the neck, torso, and jaw were common places for hoops of trash to get caught – with some even wrapping bandolier-like across the platypuses’ shoulder to the opposite foreleg. Similar analyses of such cases in Melbourne found that entanglement reports were eight times higher compared to Victoria, being most common among females and first-year juveniles.
Of the trash recovered from tangled platypuses, some of the most damaging items included elastic hair-ties, fishing line, an engine gasket, a plastic ring seal from a food jar, and even a hospital identification band. It’s doubtful the platypuses involved would have survived without human intervention, as the offending items had cut through skin and – in most cases – deeper into the underlying tissue.
The study demonstrates the need for mindful behavior while in wild habitats, as items we might deem harmless enough could go on to prove fatal for an unfortunate animal that wriggles through the wrong thing. The researchers on the paper estimate that 1.5% of the platypus living in the greater Melbourne area, and 0.5% of those in Victoria, are at risk of injury or even death due to entanglement in humans’ litter. Perhaps not enough to trigger a population decline, but the researchers stress that these reports may increase during bouts of extreme weather which are becoming increasingly common in the current climate crisis.
“Adverse population consequences of entanglement may become more significant during extended droughts when the frequency of platypus entanglement will plausibly rise due to reduced transport of litter downstream,” wrote the study authors.
“Rubbish-related impacts on wildlife can and should be addressed through vigorous community education: children and adults must be strongly encouraged to be mindful of the harmful effects of litter, to pick up rubbish wherever it’s encountered, and to cut through discarded loops or rings of any size before disposing of them in a responsible manner.”
Find out how rescuers save whales from entanglement in our interview with Ed Lymans.