The Platypus is a uniquely Australian species. Only one of three egg-laying mammals, the combination of the duck bill, the flat tail and webbed feet have always fascinated people. Local aboriginal stories tell of a young female duck falling in love with a lonely and persuasive water-rat to give birth to the first platypus. Indigenous people appear to have been aware that the platypus lays eggs and suckles their young, and even that the hind spur of the male is venomous. Traditional New south Wales names for the platypus include "mallangong" and "tambreet".
The oldest known platypus fossil dates to 110 million years ago. Until fairly recently there were up to five species in the Ornithorhynchus genus. The platypus is now the lone survivor in its genus. The platypus is extinct in South Australia and even in the eastern states there is cause for concern about the population density of the platypus – rivers are drying up, areas are overfished or have had foreign fish introduced that have changed the ecosystem dynamics of their habitat. Anecdotal evidence of populations decline exists throughout the eastern seaboard of Australia, but a single intensive study has not been performed to provide the IUCN with the evidence needed to alter the classification “of least concern”. The platypus is however protected in all waters.
One of the greatest known threats to platypus is a particular style of yabby trap – the opera house traps. Opera house traps or homemade equivalents were responsible for around 15% of all platypus deaths reported to the Australian Platypus Conservancy from 1980 to 2009 where the cause of death could be reliably assigned, with up to five animals documented to die in a single trap. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of opera house traps is increasing in many areas, reflecting the fact that sales of these items are growing considerably as a result of a significant reduction in retail price in recent years. A National Parks and Wildlife Warning states: “Yabby traps are known to catch and drown air-breathing animals such as platypus, turtles, water rats and birds. These air-breathing animals, which are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974 enter the traps looking for food, get trapped and drown.”
Taronga is working with the Australian Platypus Conservancy (APC) and The University of New South Wales (UNSW) to raise awareness of the use of “opera house” yabby traps, as well as researching alternative trapping methods that will not harm platypus and other river-dwelling animals. Research supported by Taronga is being conducted by the APC in conjunction with Dr Tom Grant from UNSW into alternative trap designs that will be harmless to Platypus, but easy to use for yabby fishers.
In grounds at both of our Zoos, volunteers are educating visitors about safe yabby traps and the dangers of the opera house style traps. Taronga Western Plains Zoo’s “Project Platypus”, empowers students to become advocates for local special not just by raising awareness, but through helping their families and communities change their attitudes and behaviour towards their local environment, in order to help protect platypus.