A new study has found a number of devastating threats to platypus populations which could see one of Australia's loveable mammals near extinction.
Platypuses were once considered widespread across the eastern Australian mainland and Tasmania, however the combination of threats such as water resource development, land clearing, climate change and increasingly severe periods of drought could see the iconic mammal go extinct.
The first study of its kind by UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Ecosystem Science and recently published in the international scientific journal Biological Conservation reveals action must be taken now to prevent the platypus from disappearing from our waterways.
Lead author Dr Gilad Bino, a researcher at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said there is an urgent need for a national risk assessment for the platypus to assess its conservation status, evaluate risks and impacts, and prioritise management in order to minimise any risk of extinction
The study estimated that under current climate conditions and due to land clearing and fragmentation by dams, platypus numbers have almost halved, leading to the extinction of local populations across 40 per cent of the species’ range.
Under predicted climate change, the losses forecast were far greater because of increases in extreme drought frequencies and duration, such as the current dry spell.
These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions with no capacity to repopulate areas," Dr Bino said.
Documented declines and local extinctions of the platypus show a species facing considerable risks, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently downgraded the platypus’ conservation status to “Near Threatened”.
But the platypus remains unlisted in most jurisdictions in Australia – except South Australia, where it is endangered.
Director of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science and study co-author Professor Richard Kingsford said it was unfortunate that platypuses lived in areas undergoing extensive human development that threatened their lives and long-term viability.
“These include dams that stop their movements, agriculture which can destroy their burrows, fishing gear and yabby traps which can drown them and invasive foxes which can kill them,” Prof Kingsford said.
Study co-author Professor Brendan Wintle at The University of Melbourne said it was important that preventative measures were taken now.
“Even for a presumed ‘safe’ species such as the platypus, mitigating or even stopping threats, such as new dams, is likely to be more effective than waiting for the risk of extinction to increase and possible failure,” Prof Wintle said.
“We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs.”
Dr Bino said the researchers’ paper added to the increasing body of evidence which showed that the platypus, like many other native Australian species, was on the path to extinction.
“There is an urgent need to implement national conservation efforts for this unique mammal and other species by increasing monitoring, tracking trends, mitigating threats, and protecting and improving management of freshwater habitats,” Dr Bino said.
The platypus research team is continuing to research the ecology and conservation of this enigmatic creature, collaborating with the Taronga Conservation Society, to ensure its future by providing information for effective policy and management.