2017-07-31 12:31:02
Trilobites: Taking the Pulse of the ‘Near Threatened’ Platypus Is a Tricky Task

12:31, July 31 46 0

The platypus is legendarily weird.

It looks a bit like a toothless beaver, but instead of a nose, it has what looks like a rubber flipper. It lays eggs like a duck; it lactates like a cow.

The male has venomous spurs on its back ankles. It lives a semiaquatic life in streams, rivers and ponds in Australia — the driest continent on Earth besides Antarctica.

Until recently, the platypus wasn’t something conservationists were much concerned about. Despite its peculiarity, it was common. But with indications that populations were declining, the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2016 updated the platypus’s conservation status to “near threatened.”

As a result, Australian scientists are embarking on a conservation initiative — supported by Sydney’s Taronga Zoo and three universities, among other organizations — to get a sense of how the animals are faring.

“There is some indication that some populations appear to be declining, while others appear to be healthy in number,” Jaime Gongora, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney, wrote in an email. “However, the overall picture is unclear.”

That’s because the platypus is not easy to pin down. The animal is active mainly at night and notoriously elusive, and it lives in tropical and temperate habitats across the continent.

The platypus doesn’t live in big groups. It moves between water and land, but spends half its time on land in burrows. In the water, the platypus is often below the surface.

Scientists trying to get a population count are urging citizens to report sightings and evaluating whether detecting remnants of platypus DNA in waterways might substitute for capturing them.

Learning more about their health, behavior, genetic diversity and reproductive patterns is essential, because the platypus has a fragmented conservation history.

In the 19th century, hunting led to a decline, but after the government protected the animals, populations bounced back. Today’s threats are loss of habitat, dams, pollution, nets and even hair ties that can entangle and kill the animals.

“I don’t think they’re on the verge of extinction by any means,’’ said Joshua Griffiths, a wildlife ecologist who monitors platypuses living around Melbourne with a research group called Cesar. “But they are under threat, and we don’t understand the extent of it yet.”

The end of a decade-long drought has brought recovery to the populations Dr. Griffiths monitors, but avoidable stressors are taking a toll. In May, for example, illegal nets deployed to trap big crayfish called yabbies instead caught platypuses, wiping out half of a vulnerable population.

Platypuses disappearing from local pockets like this could increase extinction risk for the species over all, despite their occupation of a swath of territory that hasn’t changed for 200 years. “That broad distribution starts looking like Swiss cheese, affecting their overall vitality,” he said.

As climate change and human population growth become increasingly threatening, researchers hope to uncover conservation strategies that will keep the animals from disappearing. After all, they’re important, said Dr. Griffith.

As the top predators in many Australian waterways, platypuses help maintain ecosystem balance and water health. And in their venom and tissues, scientists have discovered the potential for new painkillers and antibiotics.