The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is an Australian enigma, one of only five extant species of egg-laying mammals and the only species within the monotreme family Ornithorhynchidae. It is a semi-aquatic mammal, endemic to Australia, exhibiting both reptilian and mammalian characters: egg laying, fur, lactation, venomous spurs, and has electroreception. The platypus is such an evolutionarily distinct mammal, making it of exceptional scientific value and an irreplaceable component of national and global biodiversity.

There is mounting evidence that populations are declining due to multiple stressors, including habitat loss and fragmentation and poor river management.  In light of growing evidence, the platypus is now listed as “Near Threatened”, under the IUCN red listing. However, Australian legislation is still lagging whereby the platypus is not listed on any threatened species schedules in Australia, except in South Australia, where its natural distribution been dramatically reduced since European settlement. 

Platypus depend on freshwater habitats, which are increasingly degraded, making them especially vulnerable to modification of the natural dynamics of Australia’s riverine systems. Historic hunting and increasing evidence of recent local platypus population decreases and extinctions highlight a species facing considerable population risks. River regulation (dams, diversions), climate change, land use change, pollution and adhoc mortality from bycatch threaten the species.

Platypus populations appear to be different but connected mainly through aquatic dispersal (also some terrestrial). Reduced water availability, dam construction, water extraction, and habitat degradation all fragment platypus populations and considerably increase risks of overland dispersal by a species predominantly adapted to utilising aquatic and riparian habitats. Also, water extraction from Australia’s rivers, catalysed by dam construction, may increasingly fragment platypus populations likely increasing short-term extinction risks for isolated populations, and threatening the long-term viability of the species. Further, the vulnerability of suitable drought refugia with projected increasing climate change also represents a significant challenge for the long term survival of the species.

An ARC funded Linkage project, the Platypus Conservation Initiative, has begun in 2016.

Our goal is to reduce extinction risk to the platypus. This project will identify how different threats vary across its range, interacting with life history. We will assess how the major threat of river fragmentation affects population structure and movements. We will identify the most cost effective conservation actions to mitigate impacts, advised by our national partnership of government partners. We will develop methods for assessing extinction risk for species, with limited life history information.

During the first phase of the project we have started investigating impacts of large dams on gene flow between populations as well as health of individuals. Our first field season was focused on the regulated western flowing Severn River (NSW) and the free flowingTenterfiled Creek. In our second field season, we will be surveying the Thredbo, Snowy and Eucambene Rivers.

Check updates and photos on the facebook page.

The Centre for Ecosystem Science has partnered with Taronga Zoo and assembled a national team for a national problem of high significance. It involves three universities (University of New South WalesUniversity of Melbourne, and University of Sydney), Cesar, and six State and Federal partners all involved in the conservation of platypus, with relevant expertise and management responsibilities.

All four eastern States which coincide with the distribution of platypus are involved:

  • NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH)
  • Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (ARI)
  • Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP)
  • Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks and Water and Environment (DPIPWE)

At the national scale, The Platypus Conservation Initiative has partnered with The Environmental Water Holder and The Threatened Species Commissioner.

Associated researchers on the Project:

University of NSW

University of Sydney

Melbourne University

Taronga Zoo

Murdoch University

Cesar Australia