The duckbilled platypus is such a strange creature that when in the late 18th century British naturalists first encountered it in the form of a specimen sent back from Australia they thought it was a clever hoax.
The unique mammals, which lay eggs like birds, are real creatures all right. Yet they may go the way of the dodo unless conservation efforts are stepped up on their behalf, scientists have warned.
Prolonged droughts in their habitats in Australia have made many rivers dry up, causing the aquatic mammals to get stranded, scientists report. Complicating matters is that the animals are nocturnal and elusive, which makes it difficult to assess the health of their populations.
The platypus is currently listed as “Near-Threatened” on the IUCN’s Red List, but their situation could be more dire than that listing indicates, experts say.
“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,” stresses Gilad Bino, a researcher at the University of New South Wales’s Centre for Ecosystem Science in Sydney who was the lead author of a new study.
Bino and his colleagues estimate that the number of platypuses will drop significantly in coming decades across much of their habitat in eastern Australia and Tasmania. “Under current climate and threats, platypus abundance and metapopulation occupancy were predicted to respectively decline by 47%–66% and 22%–32% over 50 years,” they write. “This would cause extinction of local populations across about 40% of the range.”
The primary causes for the plight of the platypus have included extensive land clearing, the damming of rivers and other manmade factors. Dams severely restrict the movement of the aquatic mammal. Land clearing can destroy their burrows. Fishing gear and traps left in rivers can cause them to drown.
“These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions with no capacity to repopulate areas,” Bino says.
Australia’s changing climate, especially severe droughts and more fierce bushfires, is posing another grave threat to platypuses. Yet there is still time to help wild platypuses through effective conservation measures.
“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,” stresses Prof. Brendan Wintle, of the University of Melbourne, who was a coauthor of the study.
“We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs,” he adds.
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