Ongoing fight for survival
Our national parks are home to some of our most treasured cultural riches, and we must look after them.
An Australian icon, the platypus is emblematic of the unique wildlife we have in our region.
But a research scientist studying a platypus population in the Mackenzie River fears for the long-term survival of the species in the Wimmera amid dry conditions.
The Mackenzie River in the northern Grampians has long been an isolated outpost for the monotreme, and senior wildlife ecologist Josh Griffiths said platypuses, despite their iconic reputation, faced a tough uphill fight in the future.
“There’s one species of platypus and there’s nothing else like them in the world,” he said.
“That’s why we need to look after them. But unfortunately, like us, they depend on water. That puts us in competition with them for what is probably the most precious resource on the planet at the moment.
“So, it is scary what is going to happen in terms of climate change in the future, because these waterways are probably going to dry up every summer.”
Mr Griffiths is in the Wimmera as part of a Wimmera Catchment Management Authority sampling of the Mackenzie River for microscopic signs that the platypus population is continuing to expand.
Earlier this week, he began EDNA sampling, a process which involved analysing water samples for cellular traces of aquatic life.
Researchers will also attempt to back up the data with a live capture, preferably a juvenile, to indicate that there has been another year of recruitment.
Mr Griffiths said relatively new processes such as EDNA sampling were crucial to long-term work to reverse degradation and ensure platypuses remain within our future ecosystems.
“People have probably seen reports coming out about the massive extinction crisis we are going through at the moment, and for me that’s just completely unacceptable,” he said.
“I want platypuses to be here for another 50, 100 years, and the more I can help them with that the better.
“It is just that no one actually knows what is going on with them because they are so difficult to study.
“Before EDNA came along you couldn’t do anything over the broad scale. Now, with the EDNA project we’re doing across Australia, we’ll finally be able to answer some of those questions around, ‘should they be listed as endangered?’ and be able to give hard evidence about what we need to do to protect them.”
The nation-wide EDNA project will integrate platypus data from about 2000 sites in Australia, providing evidence of what is affecting the population and helping change legislation and policies.
Mr Griffiths said this would be a major step ahead of the ‘embarrassing unknowns we currently face regarding platypuses and their vulnerable population’.
“They are a national icon and it is embarrassing we don’t know enough about them,” he said.
“But all the signs are saying that after a pretty significant decline, the population here is slowly recovering and that’s as much as we can hope for at this stage.”
Wimmera Catchment Management Authority programs measuring waterway conditions and environmental flows have been among key management activities supporting Wimmera platypuses.
Mr Griffith’s said these projects, as well as a diversion weir downstream of the Grampian’s National Park, enabled the population to grow and become healthier.
And while the journey will be long and unprecedented, he said he hoped to see the population expand enough that platypuses would return to the Wimmera River.
“Ultimately this is a source population to try and recolonise other areas,” he said.
“But to do that we need to make sure this area is protected, the population is healthy enough and they’re breeding happily.
“This is a very small, vulnerable population, but it is on the upward trend which is really encouraging.”
TESTING THE WATERS: Wildlife ecologist Josh Griffiths takes an EDNA sample of water in Mackenzie River in the Grampians as part of Wimmera Catchment Management Authority’s platypus surveys. Picture: LOTTE REITER