UPDATE: The Scientific Advisory Committee has made their final recommendation to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change to list platypus as threatened in Victoria.
Largely living alone concealed in burrows by day or dipping below the surface of freshwater rivers, creeks and lakes at night, the platypus has long been a tricky species to keep an eye on in the wild.
In fact, there are significant knowledge gaps around platypus numbers and population trends prior to the 1990s.
Despite a lack of historical data, long-term surveys in recent decades reveal worrying evidence of widespread declines and localised extinctions.
In recognition that without further action the platypus is likely heading for extinction, an application has been submitted to have the status of this iconic native species listed as ‘vulnerable’ in Victoria.
Conservation status of the platypus
One of the biggest challenges to platypus conservation efforts is that platypuses are notoriously difficult to monitor in the wild.
They are largely nocturnal and shelter in burrows during the day. When they are active at night, they are often submerged in the water, hunting for food.
With no reliable method to accurately estimate population size in platypuses and few long-term studies, detecting changes in platypus populations has long been a challenge for wildlife ecologists.
Yet it is accepted that habit loss and fragmentation have likely negatively impacted platypus populations, and in 2016 the platypus became listed as ‘near threatened’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Since then, further progress has been made to recognise that the platypus is at a greater risk of decline and extinction.
Initiated by wildlife photographer Doug Gimesy, a nomination has been put forward to have the platypus listed as vulnerable in Victoria in accordance with the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.
Under the FFG Act, a species can be recognised as vulnerable, threatened, endangered or critically endangered depending on the severity of declines and continuing threats.
If successful, the nomination will see the platypus listed as vulnerable in Victoria.
The push to have platypus listed as a vulnerable species in Victoria was formed on the basis of recent research undertaken by Cesar Australia.
Cesar and project partners Wimmera Catchment Management Authority and Melbourne Water have been surveying platypus populations in the Wimmera and greater Melbourne regions for 13 years now.
In fact, senior wildlife ecologist at Cesar, Josh Griffiths, has spent many nights setting up fyke nets to monitor platypus numbers (see video below on what it takes!).
These long-term monitoring efforts in Victoria has provided evidence of widespread declines and localised extinctions.
Looking to the future
Promisingly, the Scientific Advisory Committee has critically reviewed the application, with advice from various experts, and have made their final recommendations to the State Government that the platypus be listed as threatened in Victoria.
The last step in the formal addition of platypus to the Victorian Threatened List will be the acceptance of these recommendations by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change.
The decision to recognise the vulnerability of the platypus can’t come soon enough. Since the nomination was submitted around 2 years ago, Cesar and our sister-company EnviroDNA, have discovered further evidence regarding platypus declines.
More recent monitoring has shown that platypuses are sparse in the upper Barwon and Coliban systems and almost completely disappeared from upper Campaspe. We have also confirmed their localised extinction in Curdies River in the Otways region. These results were gathered through various citizen science projects with the Upper Barwon Landcare Network and Upper Campaspe Landcare Network.
On the national stage, and concurrent to the decision by the Scientific Advisory Committee in Victoria, there is also a push to list the platypus as vulnerable under federal environmental law led by scientists from the University of New South Wales in conjunction with the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF-Australia, Humane Society International Australia and other groups. The research work of Cesar Australia and EnviroDNA will also provide important evidence for the vulnerable status of platypus in this national effort as well.
Article Update: This article has been updated from its original copy to reflect recent developments in this story. Since the original publication of this article on 30 September, the preliminary recommendation for platypus to be listed as threatened in Victoria was put forward for public comment on 20 August. The invitation for public comment closed on 21 September and on 12 November the Scientific Advisory Committee made its final recommendation to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change that platypus to be added to the Victorian Threatened List.
Thanks to Josh Griffiths and Francesca Noakes for their input in developing this article.