It is dusk beside a creek and we are instructed to look for a trail of bubbles, under which could be one of the world’s weirdest mammals.
When you are desperate to see a platypus in the fading light, everything looks like one.
Floating logs from bank-side paperbark trees, gyrating leaves caught in a dance with the wind, and what was probably a water rat dashing from the rocks — they all make the heart skip briefly.
Yet there is no sign of the egg-laying, duck-billed, flat-tailed venomous monotreme.
We did not hack through tropical undergrowth or trek for hours to get here. We turned left at a tile shop and pub in the suburbs of northern Brisbane and parked 40m away from Kedron Brook on a side road.
There are joggers and cyclists everywhere.
Like many of Brisbane’s waterways, platypuses were once regularly seen here, but new research has found platypuses have likely left Kedron Brook and four other greater Brisbane waterways: the Bremer River, Scrubby Creek, Slacks Creek and Enoggera Creek.
The last confirmed sighting at this exact spot was in 2002.
A new study, in the journal Australian Mammalogy, is further evidence the once widespread mammal is in trouble in Australia — its only home on the planet.
“It’s scary to think that we have already had these populations disappear under our noses,” said Tamielle Brunt, lead author and a researcher at the University of Queensland.
Brunt runs the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland’s PlatypusWatch network.
In November, researchers at the University of New South Wales found the habitat for platypuses had shrunk by almost one-quarter in the past 30 years.
The researchers joined conservationists to nominate the platypus for threatened species status.
Platypuses are elusive. They are nocturnal, skittish and tend not to make a literal splash. That makes them not only hard to see, but difficult to monitor.
Brunt and her colleagues used a new environmental DNA sampling technique to check 28 rivers and creeks for platypuses. In 21 of the waterways, they had records of platypus sightings between 1990 and 2016.
By analyzing water samples for the DNA of platypuses, excreted mainly in faeces and urine, researchers can tell if the animal is in the water without having to see them.
“Because of how elusive they are, we could be losing them without knowing because we’re just not regularly monitoring them,” Brunt said.
A lack of long-term platypus monitoring means that as land clearing and regulation of rivers has altered their habitat, any decline could be going unnoticed.
Australian coastal cities have grown relatively rapidly and in places such as Brisbane, platypus habitats such as creek banks and waterways are now surrounded by busy suburbs.
“Historically there [are] articles describing [the] platypus as being quite prolific in some waterways [in greater Brisbane],” Brunt said. “The fact that in a 10 or 20-year time frame they’ve gone out of some of these systems and that we’re seeing things only get worse with urbanization and climate change — with all these impacts getting worse, it’s a glum future for the platypus.”
Gilad Bino, a platypus researcher at the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science, helped compile research that went to the Australian federal government to ask that the platypus be listed as a vulnerable species.
He said that there are historic newspaper reports of people describing seeing “platypus migrations,” with dozens seen at once.
“These days you’ll see one or two. Most Australians have never seen one,” he said.
Gilad said that its modern-day threats are compounding. Water extraction from rivers and creeks, the building of dams and weirs that create obstacles, and river bank erosion from land clearing all have an effect.
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