The silent decline of the platypus, Australia’s beloved oddity

Recent studies suggest the duck-billed mammal is not as widespread as thought, in part due to centuries of hunting and habitat loss.

A platypus is released into Little Yarra River in Victoria, Australia, in 2018.

The platypus is one of Australia’s most beloved species—and, seemingly, one of its most resilient. Even as many of the continent’s native fauna declined or disappeared throughout the 20th century, the quirky duck-billed mammal with webbed feet was seen regularly enough that there was little urgency to monitor the animal’s populations. That is, until biologists began to realize the freshwater dwellers weren’t ok, and they probably weren’t all along.

“The platypus has declined right in front of our noses,” says Tahneal Hawke, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales and a researcher with the Platypus Conservation Initiative.

“We have a huge area across the range of the platypus where we literally don't know if they're even there or in what numbers if they are.”

Hawke co-authored a new study that surveyed centuries of historical data and suggests the platypus—found in rivers and streams throughout eastern Australia and Tasmania—has been plummeting in number, due to hunting, habitat loss, and climate change.

Some scientists started sounding alarms of the platypus’ decline as early as the 1980s, but their warnings fell on deaf ears. Then, as more and more data from long-term monitoring programs set up in the 1980s and ‘90s trickled in, the perception of the ever-stalwart platypus began to dim. (Read more about how the venomous, egg-laying platypus evolved.)

“We’ve been monitoring platypus since 1995,” explains Tiana Preston, an environmental water resources planner for the Victoria state agency Melbourne Water, “and the decline is certainly evident.”


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