The platypus returns to Australian national park after half a century

A team led by researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia has established a new platypus colony in the Royal National Park on the banks of the Hacking River outside of Sydney for the first time in more than half a century.

Whether you choose to call them platypi, platypodes, or platypuses, the platypus in plural or singular ranks as one of the most distinct animals on Earth. In fact, they are so unusual that when they were first encountered by Europeans in 1798, naturalists back in Britain’s first reaction was that the platypus was a hoax, its form stitched together from bits and pieces from other creatures.

It wasn’t a surprising conclusion, given how unusual the platypus is. With its duck-like beak, beaver tail, otter paws, and mole fur, the platypus is the sole living representative of its family and genus and one of only five living species of monotremes (the other four are different species of echidna). It not only lays eggs, it’s also one of the few venomous mammals, with the male sporting a spur on his hindfoot that can give a human an extremely painful jab.

They’re even fluorescent, giving off a blue-green color under black lights. In addition, they use electrolocation to seek their prey, making their eyes redundant while swimming.

The UNSW team releases a platypus
The UNSW team releases a platypus

Richard Freeman/UNSW Sydney

Though they have a wide range over eastern Australia, they have suffered from declining populations due to habitat destruction, pollution, and the introduction of predators like the red fox. They aren’t under general threat yet, but they are very difficult to breed in captivity and they’ve only been successfully kept in one zoo outside of Australia, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Even where they are relatively numerous, the platypus is rarely seen because it hunts for crustaceans, insects and worms in muddy waters and sleeps for up to 14 hours a day in its underground bureau.

The platypus was last confirmed seen in the Royal National Park since the 1970s when the local population dropped, perhaps due to a chemical spill. The Platypus Conservation Initiative, which includes UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), and WWF-Australia, introduced four female animals to the Hacking River after years of monitoring the area for pollution and the abundance of prey. Later, a total of six female and four male platypuses will be released.

NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe releases a platypus
NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe releases a platypus

Richard Freeman/UNSW Sydney

According to the team, reintroducing the platypus will also help to keep the area healthy, because the animal is a top predator. If it is doing well, then the local ecology is doing well, too. The platypuses were selected from different areas to ensure genetic diversity.

“The iconic platypus is under immense pressure. The work that has gone into this project to get to the point of releasing these platypuses is essential to assure the security of these species into the future,” said Penny Sharpe, Minister for the Environment. “Royal National Park is Australia’s oldest national park and I am pleased this historic reintroduction will help re-establish a sanctuary for this iconic species. Translocation is just one conservation measure that can help ensure the survival of NSW species such as platypus against climate change.”

The video below discusses the return of the platypus to the Royal National Park.


Source: University of New South Wales

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