Search Party Of 500 Volunteers Look For Rare Platypus

“Where the platypus twists and doubles, Leaving a train of tiny bubbles,” is how bush poet Barcroft Boake put it in 1891; Geoff Williams is not only hoping that more Australians get to see that, he is actively training them for it.

Williams, a biologist and director of the Australian Platypus Conservancy (APC), is mobilising hundreds of volunteers to help in the Australian Platypus Monitoring Network (APMN), a “citizen science” project to get, hopefully, the biggest-yet influx of knowledge of the numbers, extent and range of Australia’s revered, but enigmatic, monotremes (egg-laying mammals.)

The APMN encourages people to monitor and record platypus sightings via a website and app: launched in north-east Victoria in February, the program is being rolled-out progressively around Tasmania, south-western Victoria (the western extent of the animal’s known distribution, along the Great Dividing Range) and northern New South Wales, eventually to extend to the northernmost extent of the known range, in far northern Queensland. So far, about 200 of a proposed 500-strong volunteer army are watching-out for platypus.

Under the classification system of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the platypus is termed “Near-Threatened” – short of the “Vulnerable” classification, but still considered in the “extinction risk” category.

In reality, says Williams, “we don’t have a terrific handle” on platypus numbers: “It’s a very difficult species to study in the wild, and consequently, we have to be honest and say that our picture of the current status of platypus distribution is, at best, fairly sketchy,” he says.

The APMN hopes to change that. Volunteers are asked to record platypus sightings at one or more sites they regularly visit, using a standard visual survey method: they are shown how to distinguish platypus from the Australian water rat, or rakali, which is often seen in the same places. This information is then analysed to see whether platypus activity is trending up or down, or remaining steady over time.

The survey takes a “catchment-by-catchment” approach, and aims to involve groups of volunteers at each site. “As far as we’re aware, that’s the first time that this approach has been developed,” says Williams.

“We’re hoping that that in each of the major catchments throughout eastern Australia we will get a small group of volunteers working together at key locations, so that people can go on holiday or get sick and the monitoring doesn’t stop,” he says.

Hopefully, the results will be able to move the platypus down the IUCN threat ratings. “There could be as few as 30,000 platypuses left, but it could be as high as 300,000,” says Williams. “Our best guess at this stage is that it’s probably somewhere in the middle of that range across Australia.

“People think that the platypus is shy and sensitive, and only occur in pristine conditions, but in fact, they are quite a tough little critter, and they would not have been around for millions of years if they did not have a certain degree of adaptability.

“That said, with dams and irrigation systems and everything else, platypus have clearly declined in some areas,” he says. “We really need to get a handle on how they are doing on a river-system-by-river system-basis, and that’s what we hope this program will give us.”


Lead Image Credit: iStock - John Carnemolla

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