18 Oct 2023
THE PARADOX OF THE PLATYPUS
In 1815 John Thomas Campbell, the Vice-regal secretary of Governor Lachlan Macquarie wrote – “in the reaches or pools of the Campbell River, the very curious animal called the Paradox, or Water-mole, is seen in great numbers”.
Campbell was talking of the platypus. An animal so foreign, and with a physiology so contradictory to other mammals that in those first decades of colonisation, the platypus was commonly referred to as the ‘paradox’.
The Wiradjuri people have celebrated the uniqueness of the platypus for generations – one of their Dreamtime stories talks of the of platypus’ beginnings coming from a fateful meeting between Bigun the rakali (AKA native water rat) and Gaygan the duck!
To rewild the platypus, one of Australia’s most iconic and culturally significant mammals, to Sydney’s Royal National Park was a bold vision.
It required strong partnerships with dedicated organisations, and individuals.
On the ground we had Royal National Park Manager, Brendon Neilly, whose vision for the best possible visitor experience in the healthiest most biodiverse landscape, really set the scene. His team has been vital to the project success to date, and in scaling-up the management of some key threats to platypus from predation from European red fox and trampling of platypus burrows by feral deer.
Richard Kingsford, Gilad Bino, and Tahneal Hawke from The University of NSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Studies Platypus Conservation Initiative supplied the expert know-how into just what a platypus reintroduction strategy might look like, and how to handle a platypus.
The males have big venomous spurs behind their hind feet, which can inflict an excruciatingly painful sting. This made it probably the most difficult animal the WWF-Australia Rewilding team has worked with to date, so it was vital to have some seasoned handlers on the team.
Taronga Conservation Society’s Phoebe Meagher and Andrew Elphinstone also played a critical role in the project design. Taronga provided interim housing between the wild-to-wild translocation to ensure we could reintroduce cohorts of platypus at the same time and managed the veterinary checks of our founder platypus.
From the WWF-Australia team, Fran Roncolato and Patrick Giumelli have been instrumental to providing both pre-release surveying for source populations of platypus and post-release monitoring of platypus.
Since the reintroduction of ten platypus, we’ve been intensively monitoring their movements using both VHF radio transmitters and acoustic tags. The acoustic tags are particularly useful and will provide us with an ability to monitor each platypus well into 2024.
A series of acoustic receivers dotted throughout the catchment tell us where each platypus is located within the Royal National Park. Downloading the data from each receiver always brings much anticipation as to which platypus will be detected on which receiver.
Patrick has found the experience particularly enjoyable.
“I regularly get stopped by the public and asked what I’m up to when I’m checking the acoustic receivers,” said Patrick. “Their eyes light up and they’re full of questions about how the platypus are going. It’s been great to share knowledge and enthusiasm for one of our most unique native species. We’re learning so much from these ten platypus that will really help inform future reintroductions of the species.”
While it is still early days, we are delighted that monitoring has shown all ten platypus have survived and are settling in nicely to their new home in the Royal National Park.
This is almost unheard of in the science of translocation, particularly in Australian ecosystems where threats haven’t been excluded using fencing.
The next successful outcome would be evidence of breeding, and then, the birth of platypus puggles.
With threats from invasive foxes, deer, domestic cats and dogs, disturbance from people, catastrophic bushfires, floods, and a warming climate, the Australian ecosystem can be a dangerous place for our wildlife at the best of times.
Projects like this aim to better understand the thresholds of tolerance our wildlife can persist under. By working with land managers to manage threats, we can help threatened species to survive and return species to landscapes where they’ve become locally extinct.
As to what comes next for the platypus, WWF’s Rewilding Program Coordinator Fran Roncolato sums it up nicely.
“We’ve demonstrated that we can likely turn things around for platypus if we dedicate the time and resources. Rewilding is the tool to ensure the next generation can see platypus where the last generation didn’t,” said Fran.