December 2, 2023

For the first time in more than half a century, a team led by researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia has established a new platypus colony in the Royal National Park on the banks of the Harkin River outside Sydney.

Whether you choose to call them platypus, platypus, or platypus, platypus, plural or singular, rank among the most unique animals on Earth. In fact, they are so unusual that when Europeans first encountered them in 1798, the first reaction of naturalists back in England was that the platypus was a hoax, whose shape was cobbled together from bits and pieces of other creatures made.

Given how unusual the platypus is, this isn’t a surprising conclusion. With a duckbill, beaver tail, otter claws and mole fur, the platypus is the only extant representative of its family and genus and one of only five surviving monotremes (the other four are distinct species of echidnas). Not only does it lay eggs, it is also one of the few venomous mammals, and the male has a thorn on his hind foot that can be very painful to sting a human.

They’re even fluorescent, glowing blue-green under a black light. Additionally, they use electronic positioning to find prey, making their eyes redundant when swimming.

UNSW team releases platypus
UNSW team releases platypus

Richard Freeman/UNSW Sydney

Despite their widespread distribution across eastern Australia, their numbers have been in decline due to habitat destruction, pollution and the introduction of predators such as the red fox. They’re not yet generally threatened, but they’re difficult to breed in captivity, and they’ve only been successfully kept in one zoo outside of Australia, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Even where they are relatively plentiful, the platypus is rare because it hunts crustaceans, insects and worms in muddy waters and sleeps up to 14 hours a day in its basement.

The last time the platypus was seen in the Royal National Park was in the 1970s when the local population dwindled, possibly due to a chemical spill. Platypus conservation programs including the UNSW Center for Ecosystem Science, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and WWF-Australia have monitored pollution and prey abundance in the area for many years. Afterwards, a total of six female and four male platypus will be released.

NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe releases a platypus
NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe releases a platypus

Richard Freeman/UNSW Sydney

According to the team, reintroducing the platypus will also help keep the area healthy, as the animals are top predators. If it’s done well, then the local ecology is also doing well. Platypus are selected from different regions to ensure genetic diversity.

“The iconic platypus is under enormous pressure. The work this project is doing to release these platypus is critical to ensuring the future of these species is safe,” said Environment Minister Penny Sharpe. “The Royal National Park is Australia’s oldest national park and I’m delighted that this historic reintroduction will help rebuild the reserve for this iconic species. Translocation is just one conservation measure that can help ensure that new species such as the platypus Survival of South Wales species in response to climate change.”

The video below discusses the platypus’ return to the Royal National Park.

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source: University of New South Wales