Duck-billed Platypus – Back from the Brink

Duck-billed Platypus – Back from the Brink
30
Jun

Reversing the decline of the iconic Duck-billed Platypus in South East Queensland – ‘Back from the Brink’ kick-starts Season 3 to spread awareness on the plight of this critically important keystone species.

Natura Pacific is premiering Season 3 of our ‘Back from the Brink’ documentary series with an episode on the the unique and mysterious Duck-billed Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), one of Australia’s most unusual inhabitants. In this episode of ‘Back from the Brink‘ we welcome Rosalinde Brinkman from Watergum who shares with us her knowledge of this elusive creature and invites us to help her to take positive steps toward the platypus’ protection and conservation.

The Duck-billed Platypus features a duck-like bill, webbed feet, dense waterproof brown fur and a flat thick tail for storing fat reserves. This incredible animal belongs to an evolutionarily-unique and wonderful group of egg-laying mammals known as monotremes. Along with four species of echidna (the Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) found in Australia, as well as the lesser-known Western Long-beaked Echidna (Zaglossus bruijni), Eastern Long-beaked Echidna (Z. bartoni) and the wonderfully-named Sir David’s Long-beaked Echidna (Z. attenboroughi), the Duck-billed Platypus is one of the few remaining species of monotremes on earth (for more information on monotremes, take a look at the links at the bottom of the article).

Eating in the dark

Like the echidnas, the platypus use electro-reception to detect their prey. As a semi-aquatic animal, they hunt under the water with their eyes shut, feeding on macro invertebrates such as freshwater shrimp, yabbies and insect larvae using electric impulses emitted through highly sensitive receptors in their bill to search for food in the dark.  These nocturnal carnivores play a crucial role as keystone species in freshwater ecosystems along the east coast of Australia where they range from the tropics of north Queensland to the cold freshwater creeks and river systems of Tasmania. Whilst all wildlife play important roles within their environments, keystone species such as the platypus are fundamental to the functioning of freshwater ecosystems due to their role as a top predator in controlling the populations of macro-invertebrates. Unfortunately, the decline of such a species could have tragic cascading effects on the functioning and health of these environments.

Azure Damselfly Larva – Image by John Pumpurs

Cool clear waters

Whilst the platypus has an extensive range, they do require different habitats within freshwater ecosystems to survive. Habitat requirements include a wide water body with a depth no greater than 7 metres, such as a rock-pool, with healthy native riparian vegetation for bank stability to support the creation of burrows to lay their eggs and nurse their young. For food, they require fast flowing unpolluted narrow sections in creeks and rivers to support the supply of quality macro-invertebrates. Platypus also require a good 2 – 3 kilometre stretch of water with connectivity to nearby water bodies. These habitat conditions are so precious that male platypus will defend their territory using a highly venomous spur that can inflict a painful injury in defence.

Platypus habitat – Image by Natura Pacific

Threats to survival are sadly too common

Unfortunately, these ideal habitats are in decline due to human disturbance, pets, drought, invasive plants and bank erosion from livestock, river sedimentation and water pollution.  And sadly, habitat loss is not the only threat to the decline of this important mammal. Fishing traps, such as Opera House nets allow the platypus to swim in but they can’t swim out and will drown trapped inside. Watergum, a South East Queensland-based environmental protection group, recently found 7 dead platypus in one single Opera House net alone. The use of these nets is illegal in some states of Australia but not yet in Queensland.

Platypus in our backyard

The beautiful Numinbah Valley is arguably South East Queensland’s local hotspot for this elusive and mysterious creature according to Rosalinde Brinkman – Executive Officer for Watergum.

“The nocturnal and shy habits of the platypus make it a challenge to study and unfortunately the lack of information available does not help its conservation”.

Rosalinde Brinkman – Watergum
Platypus swimming – Image by Watergum

Protection for this unique mammal

Whilst the platypus, like other Australian native animals, are protected by law, and cannot be captured or killed, they are only listed as a Special Least Concern in Queensland, meaning that there is no federal or state conservation plan for this species. Internationally however, they are listed as Near Threatened under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The lack of appropriate legislation in Queensland and documented population records, combined with the challenge of researching semi-aquatic, largely nocturnal animals, could mean the silent decline and the possibility of a very uncertain future for this important species.

“I have dedicated so much of my time learning about this incredible species and there is still so much more to discover”

Rosalinde Brinkman – Watergum

There are still so many unknown questions to be answered from the possibilities of cures for diabetes in their venom and the potential development of life preserving antibiotics in their milk not to mention the ecosystem consequences of losing one of the last monotreme species on Earth.

But there are many simple solutions to reversing the decline of the platypus in South East Queensland

Anyone can get involved and see these amazing creatures in their natural environment through citizen science programs. You can easily register and join Watergum’s Platypuswatch program that are regularly running surveys right across the Gold Coast hinterland and Scenic Rim, by emailing:

platypus@watergum.org

You too could enjoy contributing to the conservation of this incredible animal while enjoying social interactions and memorable sunrises in some of the most scenic river systems in our country. As a platypus research volunteer you will contribute to building a valuable knowledge bank on the ecology of this cryptic species and help steer it away from catastrophe.

Platypuswatch Volunteers 2018 – Image by Gold Coast Catchment Association

Get involved, and get others involved too

Talk to your family, friends and neighbours that you know live along a waterway and find out if they have resident platypus on their property. They can complete a sighting report on the Watergum website.

Taking care of our waterways benefits us all

Good quality water is not only essential for platypus but also for other wildlife and us humans too! Avoid dumping rubbish or using chemicals that will pollute our local waterways. Help alleviate the impacts of river bank erosion and learn the native plants that hold our banks together using the free GroNATIVE app to plant local native plants on your land instead of problematic exotics (click on the link to download the app). GroNATIVE can help you to easily identify the right riparian wetland vegetation to plant and grow along river banks to support a healthy habitat for platypus.

Help others to understand the dangers of nets

Educate your local fishing and tackle shops on the threats of opera house nets and other enclosed yabby nets. There are plenty of other platypus-safe affordable alternatives such as the Hoop or Open-top Lift nets which can be purchased for as little as $12.50 at most fishing and adventure stores. And remember, as a protected species, various penalties apply for the possession or death of platypus, so why not use the safer alternative for the sake of both your wallet and our platypus friends?

Platypus swimming – Image by Watergum

Government funding is available to help conserve habitat

If you are a landowner, there are numerous ways to look at getting funding to protect your property and encourage native wildlife including applying for Voluntary Conservation Agreement, becoming a Land for Wildlife property or applying to the City of Gold Coast’s Nature Conservation Assistance Program (NCAP) (click on the links to find out more). You can also contact Natura Pacific’s expert team of ecologists who can work with you to see if you qualify for a Queensland Government grant that will offer financial and expert support in assisting you to manage, conserve and promote quality habitat on your property through various initiatives such as carbon-farming and the Queensland Government Land Restoration Fund (click to find out more).

Together, we can all do our part to support this remarkable animal, so hopefully it will become a more and more common sight in our local waterways well into the future.

Platypus swimming – Image by Watergum

Thank you for the support

Our sincere thanks go to Rosalinde Brinkman and Watergum as well as their amazing army of volunteers who all contribute so much time and enthusiasm to seeing this important species protected.

We also wish to thank Jenny Collins from the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Science who coordinated filming of “Wally” the platypus at the David Fleay Wildlife Park.

Sincere thanks also go to the Queensland Government’s Social Enterprise Grants Program and the Regional Arts Development Fund (a partnership between the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland) for providing funding and support for the Back from the Brink project.

Take a look here if you would like to see other episodes of ‘Back from the Brink’.

Platypus habitat – Image by Natura Pacific

More Information

Watch more Back from the Brink Episodes here: https://www.natura-pacific.com/category/video/

Find out more about Natura Pacific: https://www.natura-pacific.com

Find out more about Watergum PlatypusWatch: https://watergum.org/platypuswatch/

The search for rare monotremes continues: https://www.globalwildlife.org/attenboroughs-long-beaked-echidna/

Information about yabby nets and platypus: https://vfa.vic.gov.au/recreational-fishing/changes-ahead-for-yabby-fishing-gear

You can get up close and personal with a captive Duck-billed Platypus at David Fleay Wildlife Park on the Gold Coast: http://www.fleayswildlife.com.au/

Find out how to download GroNATIVE app for free: https://www.natura-pacific.com/gronative-app/

Sign-up for funding to support your land and its conservation on the Gold Coast, here: https://www.goldcoast.qld.gov.au/nature-conservation-assistance-program-how-to-apply-14167.html

Voluntary Conservation Agreements on the Gold Coast: https://www.goldcoast.qld.gov.au/environment/voluntary-conservation-agreements-4196.html

Queensland Government’s Land Restoration Fund: https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/climate/climate-change/land-restoration-fund

Fun activities for kids: https://watergum.org/courses/make-a-platypus-bookmark/

ABC News article about platypus extinction: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-20/platypus-on-the-brink-of-extinction-national-call-to-action/11882584

New York Times article on platypus extinction: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/science/platypuses-australia-wildfires.html

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