By Jason Bittel
We don't know much about platypuses, but what we do know is pretty fascinating.
They are mammals—despite the fact that they are venomous, lay eggs and lack nipples. They have webbed feet like otters, leathery tails like beavers, and broad bills on their faces like ducks. The females have two ovaries, but only one of them is worth a damn. If you were to stick a thermometer in the animal's tukhus—which is pretty different from yours or mine or those of our other furry relatives because it's a cloaca (basically, one hole does it all)—you'd find that platypuses run at a relatively chilly baseline of just 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And remarkably, these monotremes (Greek for "single hole"), when hunting underwater, they cinch up their eyes, ears, and nose and navigate entirely by detecting the tiny twinges of electricity given off by the muscle contractions of their prey, mostly crustaceans.
A more bizarre mammal you will not find.
And yet, for all the curiosity surrounding these chimerical creatures, which have been swimming eastern Australia's rivers for tens of millions of years, scientists have no idea how many duck-billed platypuses are out there, how many there used to be, or how long they might continue to be at all.
"Are there half as many as there were? A tenth of what there were?" asked Josh Griffiths, a wildlife ecologist with the Centre for Environmental Stress and Adaptation Research in Victoria, Australia. "I mean, they could have increased for all we know." Even so, the International Union for Conservation of Nature decided in 2016 to classify the species as near threatened due to challenges such as habitat loss and degradation.
"The listing was a step forward. It took into account all the information we had, but that was fairly limited," said Griffiths. "But I think anyone who has worked with platypuses for any length of time would probably think that's an underestimate."
The problem with quantifying platypuses comes down to one simple fact: They're sneaky little buggers. Duck-bills spend nearly all of their time in waterways hunting for shrimp, crayfish, and other invertebrates. Even when they do come up for air, their low profiles at the water's surface are so cryptic that even trained observers have a tough time determining what they're actually looking at. These clever animals are also tough to trap. And once they've been caught and released, they seem particularly adept at avoiding a repeat of the experience—making mark and recapture studies difficult. Finally, platypuses live mostly solitary lives, so even under natural conditions their population densities are low.
A closeup of a platypus's venomous spur. Roland Seitre / Nature Picture Library
But Griffiths and partners at the San Diego Zoo and the University of Melbourne are up for this monotreme challenge. They're working to complete the largest survey of platypuses ever—and they're doing it by collecting environmental DNA or eDNA. With this cutting-edge technique, the researchers basically scoop up water samples from a river, pond, or even an ocean in order to detect infinitesimally small bits of DNA sloughed off by the plants and animals that live there. The eDNA won't necessarily tell us how many platypuses live in a given waterway, says Griffiths, but it can quickly and affordably indicate whether they are there at all.
The study is in its first of three years, and the hope is that the results will convince the Australian government and the managers of platy-positive waterways to help these furry, nipple-less egg layers where they still exist. (Local Australians can assist in the search, too, by logging platypus sightings into the smartphone app, platypusSPOT.)
Platypuses may be odd, but the threats they face are all too familiar. Because they spend nearly their whole lives in streams, lakes, and ponds, they are susceptible to drought, obstructions to water flow such as dams and culverts (similar to the Chinese sturgeon and Pacific lamprey), and other developments that degrade their natural habitat.
The sheer number of small farms with dams in Australia that withdraw water from tributaries, Griffiths said, is enough to drastically alter "flow regimes," or the amount and speed at which water flows, in larger waterways. This fundamentally changes the platypus's environment. A river or stream that no longer flows at full capacity turns into a series of pools connected by shallow channels, "and that just isn't conducive to supporting a healthy platypus population," said Griffiths.
Furthermore, the clearing of brush and vegetation along riverbanks that can happen with farming, ranching, and other land use can cause erosion when the root systems that hold dirt in place are yanked out. Platypuses make their burrows in these banks, often behind clumps of roots that serve as front doors of sorts. Erosion also sends more sediment into the water, which can smother insects that the platypuses and their prey depend on for food. Loss of trees also means there is less woody debris for the litter critters to feed on. All these alterations add up to a very different ecosystem—and not one evolution has equipped the platypus for.
A recent study revealed another insidious threat to platypuses: pharmaceuticals. Platypuses are considered by the researchers to be apex predators, making them more susceptible to pollutants that have accumulated in the bodies of animals farther down the food chain. These include painkillers, antidepressants, and antibiotics that find their way into waterways via sewage systems, septic tanks, and runoff. In fact, the researchers estimate that in some cases, a platypus in a contaminated stream might ingest half a human dose of antidepressants every single day.
Nets and traps intended for other animals also kill hundreds of platypuses each year. Fishing for a large crayfish called the yabby (with "opera house nets," named for their likeness to Sydney's famous venue) has proved to be particularly lethal. While Griffiths and other conservationists were able to get the nets banned in the state of Victoria last May, they remain legal elsewhere.
How much each of these threats is hurting the platypus's chance to remain on the planet for another 50 million years or so is unknown, which is why eDNA analysis is a crucial first step in the conservation of these swift and savvy little duck-faced animals.
Another necessary step is freeing up their waterways. People can replant bankside vegetation and cut down on yabby trapping, said Griffiths, but if the streams stop flowing, such efforts won't make much difference. This fact about the platypus may not be as fun, but it's one we have to learn.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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