Climate crisis and land clearing pushes platypus to the brink of extinction

22 Jan 2020

The UNSW-led project raises concerns about the decline of platypus populations. Image: UNSW Science

A drought that has devastated much of Australia threatens to kill off the famous duck-billed platypus.

A new study led by the University of New South Wales Sydney’s Centre for Ecosystem Science has found that a creature considered one of the strangest products of evolution could be on the brink of extinction.

Australia’s devastating drought is having a critical impact on the duck-billed platypus, with increasing reports of many of the creatures becoming stranded as rivers dry up. Platypuses were once considered widespread across eastern Australia and Tasmania, but their secretive, nocturnal nature made them hard to track.

This new study, published to the journal Biological Conservation, looked at the potentially deadly combination of water resource development, land clearing, the climate crisis and increasingly severe periods of drought. Alarmingly, the study estimated that the current climate conditions, land clearing and fragmentation by dams has seen platypus numbers halved, leading to the potential extinction of local populations across approximately 40pc of the species’ range.

‘We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs’

Under predicted climate change, the losses forecast were far greater because of increases in extreme drought frequencies and duration, such as the current dry spell in Australia.

Lead author of the study, Dr Gilad Bino, said: “These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions with no capacity to repopulate areas.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently downgraded the platypus’ conservation status to ‘near threatened’, but it remains unlisted in most jurisdictions in Australia, except South Australia where it is endangered.

Study co-author Prof Brendan Wintle, from the University of Melbourne, said it is important that preventative measures are taken now.

“Even for a presumed ‘safe’ species such as the platypus, mitigating or even stopping threats, such as new dams, is likely to be more effective than waiting for the risk of extinction to increase and possible failure,” he said.

“We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic