Pressure on platypus numbers | Photos, video

DECLINING: The platypus population has seen a continuing steady decline, leading it's status to be upgraded to "near threatened". Picture: Piia Wirsu
DECLINING: The platypus population has seen a continuing steady decline, leading it's status to be upgraded to "near threatened". Picture: Piia Wirsu

Despite being protected, the outlook of the platypus is looking grim, with declining populations and three deaths in Tasmania just this week.

December saw the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgrade the status of the platypus to “near threatened”, noting the steady population decline of the species. 

In Tasmania a range of threats are contributing to the dropping platypus numbers, with habitat destruction, water quality, dogs and feral cats, rubbish and illegal fishing and netting all contributing. 

Just this week three platypus carcasses were found in an illegal fishing net in Tasmania’s north-west, where it is believed they became trapped and drowned. 

Platypus House operations manager Sharon Berryman wants to see the platypus have a higher profile so people are aware of the impact their actions have on the unique species. She thinks it’s all about “education, education”.

“We need to educate children about platypus,” she said. 

“Education, understanding and getting people to understand how unique and how different they are.”

Ms Berryman said she has seen some “horror stories”.

“There was a feral cat situation at Exeter where a lady’s cat at night time was going out – [it] eradicated all the female platypus in that area. If you’ve only got a male in that area and you’ve got no females then you've got no reproduction,” she said. 

Or another story, where a female platypus suffocated in her burrow by lining it with plastic she found in the river. 

Another major concern to the health of platypus populations in Tasmania is the platypus fungal disease mucormycosis, which was first observed in 1982 and results in open ulcers on platypuses and then death. 

It is believed the fungus was introduced to Tasmania via frogs transported from the mainland, but is not known to affect mainland platypuses.

There is little known about the fungal disease, making it difficult to determine the extent of the threat it poses. 

Ms Berryman would like to see research into the platypus and its threats gain similar traction as that seen in the Save the Tasmanian Devil campaign. 

Platypuses have several unique characteristics that distinguish them, most notably they are monotremes – or egg-laying mammals. 

The only other monotremes in the world are four species of echidna.

Notoriously shy, the platypus is difficult to breed in captivity. There have been only nine successful recorded breedings worldwide to date. 

Ms Berryman said this means there is little backstop if populations do continue to decline, as captive breeding programs like those implemented to secure the Tasmanian devil repopulation wouldn't work. 

“We’re on the back foot because we would like to understand that whole breeding process so that if something does happen we can fall back on that (captive breeding),” she said. 

Additionally, it is believed the platypus only breed every two years, meaning it can take populations a long time to recover after suffering a hit. 

“We’re finding that they're dropping down but we’re not getting them to breed up again ,” Ms Berryman said. 

The Platypus House has made breeding their platypuses a priority this summer, with an in-house romance they are hoping will prove fruitful. 

“That’s our primary goal, we have a female out with our male and we're doing everything we can … we’re focusing on what, as a male and a female, they need to do so we’re putting their needs ahead of the business needs,” Ms Berryman said.

“We need to understand that (how they breed in captivity) so that if something does happen to the Tasmanian platypus we've got an understanding of how we might be able to help them.”

To learn more about the platypus, and why it’s unique, the Platypus House runs tours every day. Visit www.platypushouse.com.au