In plain sight: how we missed the decline of the platypus


Words: Holly Payne | Illustration: Mitchell Pascoe

How to spot a platypus | Tamielle Brunt

“And you’re looking for, like, bubbles… a trail of bubbles. And they kind of cycle every few seconds. So they’ll, you know, be foraging, you’ll see these bubbles coming up in a trail.

“And then they’ll kind of glide up to the surface. They don’t – people think they hear platypus, like they plop, but they don’t plop… If they do get scared, they kind of make a bit of a loud splash. But they’re not really plopping animals.

“So, and yeah, once you see one, it’s – they’re very streamlined across the surface. So they have a distinct kind of bow wave as they’re swimming. And then like a duck dive as they’re going in as well.”

How do you tell when a species is disappearing?

What if you didn’t even know it was there in the first place?

Despite being one of the most uniquely recognisable Australian animals, the truth is, things are not going well for the platypus. Once considered to be fairly ubiquitous in the creeks and rivers of major cities along the east coast, research carried out over the last ten years has shown a slow, relatively unnoticed decline in populations. In some waterways, platypus have disappeared completely. Although drought is very likely the main culprit, the role of humans cannot be understated; not least due to the fact that platypus often go unnoticed in more urbanised environments. In fact, they often do live in the brooks and creeks which run through densely populated suburban areas.

Platypus were right under our noses, and most of us didn’t even know they were there. Which is why we didn’t notice them disappearing, either.

Platypus swimming | Image credit: Tamielle Brunt

Due to their notorious shyness, and the fact that they are nocturnal, platypus are rarely seen by chance – which is good for avoiding predators, but less ideal for monitoring and conservation purposes. In many cases, residents may not even be aware that their property backs onto a creek which houses the iconic monotremes, meaning crucial conservation opportunities are missed. According to Josh Griffiths, a senior wildlife ecologist at Melbourne-based agriculture firm Cesar, building public awareness of where platypus live is a key step in ensuring their conservation.

“I’d be out setting my nets in some sort of suburb of Melbourne, and people would be basically laughing at me trying to catch platypus. And the story would be that they’ve lived there for 20 years and never seen platypuses and the creek is, you know, really degraded – and sure enough, I would catch them there that night,” said Josh.

“And so, there’s this real, I guess, misconception that platypuses live in some sort of pristine environment. But the reality is that they’re really adaptable little critters… and if you can make people understand that their local creek has platypus in it, they suddenly take a lot more care of it.”

Tamielle Brunt, who oversees Queensland’s PlatypusWatch Network – and whose voice was heard at the beginning of this article – also stressed the importance of businesses knowing how close they are to wildlife.

“We’ve got platypus in industrial areas, at Wacol… Sandy Creek runs smack bang through an industrial area,” Tamielle said.

Above: Sandy Creek runs through industrial areas, such as Wacol

“Those people probably don’t know that there’s even platypus there. So even engaging in those companies to be, I guess, a bit more mindful and aware of what they do have, literally in their vicinity, and how they go about… waste disposal, and water runoff or anything like that.”

Awareness alone, however, is not enough to reverse the damage done; the carry-over effect of not having previous awareness has been a lack of solid scientific data. Essentially, because there were no monitoring programs in place until a few years ago, conservationists are missing baseline data, making it near impossible to judge the actual decline in platypus populations.

“It’s that vicious cycle where the species don’t get attention until they’re listed as a threatened species, they don’t get funding to do surveys,” Josh explained.

“And of course, they don’t get listed until you’ve got the data to show that it is actually threatened.”

Over the past several years, PlatypusWatch has implemented a more comprehensive monitoring program, comparing new data against historical records of sightings to effectively develop a map of where platypus populations exist in the greater Brisbane region. The results have, unfortunately, found that at least three major waterways which contained platypus as recently as five years ago now no longer have populations. Josh, too, has seen a gradual decline in Melbourne’s platypus numbers.

“I guess a lot of the work we’ve done in the Melbourne area and a couple of other of our long term projects here in Victoria have shown massive declines,” said Josh.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen some localised extinctions, we’ve seen large declines in abundance, and that’s probably not surprising given we had, you know, the the most severe drought in recorded history down in this part of the country.”

Drought is, of course, a key reason for the decline in number of platypus – with creek-beds drying up, they are often forced overland in search of water, where they are susceptible to predators. But it’s not just the lack of water – it’s also what we, as humans, are doing with the remaining water and landscape.

“We’ve created so much impervious structure,” Tamielle said.

“So the fact is that when it does rain, it’s not seeping into the soils like it would normally and filtering in. It would, you know, be hitting these concretes and roofs and roads…, and very hard and fast storm waters; and that then can also cause issues for, … erosion and all that kind of stuff.”

Well-meaning community groups, too, can often unintentionally cause harm, according to Dawn Beck, who has been observing platypus along Moggill Creek for over 20 years. According to Dawn, catchment groups – that is, community groups dedicated to maintaining and conserving local creeks – are often overzealous with their weeding of non-native plants, many of which are now integrated into the surrounding areas.

“We have to realise that our wildlife has adjusted to the present conditions, and everybody wants to get rid of the Chinese Elms, because they’re an introduced plant and it’s ‘oh, they’re an introduced plant, you’ve got to get rid of it’,” Dawn said.

“But all along Moggill Creek in the lower part where I observe, it’s only the – it’s mainly the Chinese Elms that are holding the banks together. Otherwise, they’d be eroding – and the platypus burrows I’ve seen, or the – my best one where my female lives in this pool is right under a Chinese elm.”

“It depends – do you want to return it all to pure native bush, what we had before? And, well, I don’t know how we’d maintain the platypus then, in the intermediate stages, things are going to open up the creek too much, or it’ll erode.”

– Dawn
Weeds and grasses along the banks of creeks help to hide platypus from predators and provide shade during the day | Image credit: author

Essentially, if too many invasive plant species are taken out, there is a risk of the bank, where the platypus make their burrows, eroding; but keeping the invasive species there makes for poor biodiversity. According to Josh, it’s a process which can be done safely, but does take additional work.

“Traditionally, the way people used to do it was just, you know, rip and burn and that would destroy the banks completely, whereas now the technique is to, you know, poison the species, cut them off at the base and leave the root systems in place that hold those banks together and then replant native vegetation around it,” said Josh.

Despite the rather disheartening current state, Josh maintains that the decline in platypus population is not irreversible. In fact, numbers are starting rise again in Melbourne, after significant rehabilitation efforts were made. Even with severe drought conditions in Queensland, it’s still possible to observe platypus in the wild – a visual survey carried out by the Moggill Creek catchment group just a few weeks ago found a continued presence of platypus in the creek. Going out and seeing a platypus in person, according to Tamielle, often leaves people “just slack, holding on standing there, … because it… really is quite amazing and special to see them”.

Platypus still live in Moggill Creek, even in places which directly back onto houses | Image credit: author

Getting involved with catchment groups, helping out with observational surveys and even checking local waterway for platypus are all ways in which individuals can contribute to saving one of Australia’s most unique pieces of wildlife.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B2vj0t_gT_1/

Spotting them, in fact, is far less difficult than expected; all it takes is finding a relatively quiet area near a deeper part of a creek near sunset or sunrise and sitting quietly. An early morning or a late afternoon is a small price to pay for a chance to see one of Australia’s icons in the wild – especially when they may one day leave us for good.

https://youtu.be/M7vbKmhIDC8
Dawn describes how she spots platypus | Video credit: author

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