Danger heats up for Australia's platypus

Jun 24, 2011 by Amy Coopes
Global warming could shrink the habitat of Australia's iconic duck-billed platypus by a third, researchers warned in Melbourne, with hotter drier temperatures threatening its survival.

Global warming could shrink the habitat of Australia's duck-billed platypus by a third, researchers warned Friday, with hotter, drier temperatures threatening its survival.

A confusion of bird, mammal and reptile characteristics, the timid platypus is one of Australia's most cryptic creatures, feeding at night and living in deep waterside burrows to dodge predators such as foxes and eagles.

But its thick, watertight fur coat -- one of the key tools to ensuring its survival in the cool depths of rivers and waterholes -- could spell disaster in a warming climate, according to a new study from Melbourne's Monash University.

Using weather and platypus habitat data stretching back more than 100 years, researchers were able to map declines in particular populations in connection with and heat events.

The team then extrapolated their findings across a range of climate change scenarios laid out by the government's science research agency, CSIRO, to model how global warming would affect the unusual .

A confusion of bird, mammal and reptile characteristics, the timid platypus is one of Australia's most cryptic creatures, feeding at night and living in deep waterside burrows to dodge predators such as foxes and eagles.

"Our worst case scenario at the moment suggested a one-third reduction in their suitable habitat," researcher Jenny Davis told AFP of the work published in the journal .

Other human impacts, including land clearing and the damming of waterways for hydroelectric projects, had and would continue to diminish platypus homes, she added.

"Under a drying climate we'll be taking more water away from the environment because of our human needs, and predators are going to become more of an issue for (the) platypus," she said.

The most dire predictions suggested the platypus would disappear from Australia's mainland entirely, able only to live on Tasmania and the southern King and Kangaroo islands, said Davis.

Davis said the nocturnal creature already appeared to be responding to increases in Australia's , with certain populations receding from the 1960s, when a warming trend first became evident.

"Compared with 50 years ago some places have become too warm for them. Their habitat is shrinking," she said.

Classed as "common but vulnerable", the platypus is already extinct in the wild in South Australia state, and Davis said she feared it could meet a similar fate to the Tasmanian devil, whose numbers had dwindled rapidly.

"What could happen is that we could see a crash in an iconic animal and by the time that happens it's too late to do something about it," she said.

Platypus fur is finer and denser than that of a river otter or polar bear, and it has two layers: a long sleek outer and a woolly undercoat, ensuring it stays dry even when fully submerged in water.

Their average body temperature is 32 degrees Celsius (89 Fahrenheit) -- lower than most other mammals -- and they overheat rapidly when exposed to warm conditions out of the water.

Of most concern, however, is the drying up of waterways where they forage for aquatic invertebrates, with the needing to eat about 30 percent of their own body weight every day to survive.

Davis said the creature's demise was "just another warning sign" of global warming's impact on Australia's unique wildlife.

Explore further: Season's first dolphins killed in Japan, say activists

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New insights into Australia's unique platypus

Nov 02, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- New insights into the biology of the platypus and echidna have been published, providing a collection of unique research data about the world's only monotremes.

Uni leads study on echidna sex life

Aug 22, 2007

A University of Adelaide-led project will study the genetic makeup of one of Australia's most iconic animals, the echidna, to give an unprecedented insight into their sex life and behaviour.

Global warming threatens Australia's iconic kangaroos

Oct 15, 2008

As concerns about the effects of global warming continue to mount, a new study published in the December issue of Physiological and Biochemical Zoology finds that an increase in average temperature of only two degrees Celsiu ...

Scientists want polar bear protection

Jun 20, 2006

A U.S. climate researcher is leading a team of 30 North American and European scientists in urging the polar bear be listed as a threatened species.

Recommended for you

Scientists discover tropical tree microbiome in Panama

13 hours ago

Human skin and gut microbes influence processes from digestion to disease resistance. Despite the fact that tropical forests are the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, more is known about ...

How are hybridized species affecting wildlife?

17 hours ago

Researchers who transplanted combinations of wild, domesticated, and domesticated-wild hybridized populations of a fish species to new environments found that within 5 to 11 generations, selection could remove ...

Japan's whale hunt under scrutiny at IWC meeting

18 hours ago

Japan's intention to resume whale hunts in the Antarctic—despite a ruling by the top U.N. court—topped the agenda as an international whaling conference opened Monday in Slovenia's Adriatic Sea resort ...

User comments : 0