Platypuses Are Dying in 'Cesspits' That Are 'Bacteria Ridden and Lifeless,' As Experts Warn Species Is at Risk of Extinction

Platypus populations across Australia are being put at risk of extinction, with a recent drought having a severe impact on the iconic species. "They're all dead, they're gone," one conservationist from New South Wales told ABC News.

This drought has caused rivers to dry up, leaving platypuses stranded, according to Aussie Ark, a conservation organization based in the Greater Barrington region of New South Wales.

The duck-billed mammal was once thought to be widespread across the east of the Australian mainland and the island of Tasmania, however, it is currently listed as Near-Threatened under the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List.

Significant uncertainty exists about the current distribution and abundance of these animals, in part because they are nocturnal and secretive in nature.

In an attempt to address this knowledge gap, a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney and the University of Melbourne analyzed platypus populations across its entire range and the risks they are facing.

Their findings, published in the journal Biological Conservation, show several threats platypus are facing, including habit destruction and issues associated with climate change.

The study found given that significant losses in platypus populations may have already occurred, leading to the extinction of local populations. "We may have lost 40 per cent of platypus numbers and that is only going to get worse with the impacts of climate change over the next fifty odd years," Richard Kingsford, a co-author of the study, told ABC News.

"This animal is one of the most amazing animals that we have on the planet and it would be a very sad day if we were ever in the position of losing them," he said. "I'm very much hopeful that we'll never get there, but we do need to address it urgently."

Tim Faulkner, president of Aussie Ark, who was not involved in the research, said that—based on his experience—platypus numbers appear to be dropping dramatically, especially given the recent drought.

"In our region, they're all dead, they're gone—I can't find them," he told ABC News. "They must have water to feed in."

New research suggests that the iconic Australian platypus is at risk of extinction because of threats including climate change and human-related habitat loss. UNSW Science

Faulkner said that many of the waterside burrows that the animals live in had dried up or been filled in with silt. The others had been damaged by wild horses, pigs and livestock. He said that measures to protect these habitats are needed to save the platypus.

"Private landholder management, the management of riparian zones along creeks, water harvest as well as control on stock trampling [are all required]," Faulkner told ABC. "And going to the toilet in the last fragments of water [must also be controlled]. The platypus that we did rescue, we had two die the next day. Their bellies are empty and they're all riddled with E. coli and a greater diversity of bacteria than that.

"Platypus are a Gondwanan dinosaur species—they are monotremes, egg-laying mammals, some of the oldest lineages of mammals on earth. They've been in this constant east coast temperate environment, largely unchanged, for millions of years. To see it now, a cesspit that's bacteria ridden and lifeless, certainly in our area—and this must be so wide spread—they're gone."

Kingsford noted the platypus is also facing other threats. These include dams that stop their movements, fishing gear that can drown them and invasive foxes, which kill them.

Despite these threats, the platypus is not listed as endangered in most jurisdictions in Australia, except for the state of South Australia.

According to Gilad Bino, another author of the study from UNSW Sydney, immediate action is required in order to prevent the animal from disappearing. "There is an urgent need to implement national conservation efforts for this unique mammal and other species by increasing monitoring, tracking trends, mitigating threats, and protecting and improving management of freshwater habitats," Bino said in a statement.

The scientists say that given the current threats, platypus numbers could decline by 47 to 66 percent over the next 50 years, causing extinctions of local populations across 40 percent of their range. By 2070, platypus abundance could decline by up to 73 percent under climate projections, which predict increased extreme drought frequencies and duration, according to the study.

Conservation efforts, they say, should include banning enclosed cray fish traps, preventing land clearing, limiting cattle grazing and restoring their habitats. "Developing 'platypus-ways' providing safe passage from feral animals and improving connectivity by bypassing weirs and dams might be a mitigation measure but significant impediments to development remain (platypus behavior, type of structure, particularly for large dams)," they wrote. "Maintaining healthy and connected platypus populations, between catchments, along the eastern flowing rivers of Australia and Tasmania must be a priority for the species."

In light of their findings, they recommend re-evaluating the conservation status of the species, suggesting that it may warrant being reclassified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.