Did you know that one of Australia’s most unique and charismatic animals lives right on Melbourne’s doorstep? With a duck’s bill, egg-laying ability, a mammal’s fur and a poison barb on their foot, of course I’m talking about the famous Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). The platypus is about as iconic an animal as you can get, featuring on television shows such as Blinky Bill (who could forget ‘Flap’ the platypus?), in aboriginal dreamtime stories, and even in a song by Green Day.
However, the platypus also plays an important ecological role in addition to its plethora of cultural significance. Being a carnivore, the platypus generally sits atop the food chain in our freshwater rivers and streams. Therefore, it plays a vital role in keeping species such as freshwater crustaceans and aquatic invertebrates in check.
Unbeknownst to many in Melbourne, one can go in search of this fantastic creature without spending longer than an hour in the car. Many of the Yarra River’s freshwater tributaries, as well as the Yarra itself are home to the platypus. Most active during the early morning and late evening, these are the best times to sneak up quietly to the water’s edge and peer into the depths in search of the splash of their thick tail. If you’re lucky enough to spot one frolicking in the shadows, it makes for a truly unforgettable experience.
For an extended introduction to the art of platypus spotting, head to the Australian Platypus Conservancy (APC).
Whilst this beloved animal is listed under ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), there is sufficient evidence to show that platypus numbers have decreased in the past decade. The cause of this decline has been linked to two or three different reasons, namely water quality, the use of opera house nets and increased river temperatures as a result of climate change.
The platypus is incredibly sensitive to the quality of the river it lives in, particularly in terms of pollution levels and the degree of bank erosion. However, 80% of platypus deaths reported between 1989 and 2009 were related to humans. Specifically, the use of opera house nets to catch freshwater crustaceans and fishermen leaving behind tackle in which animals get caught have been particularly damaging.
As a result, the use of opera house nets in Victorian public rivers and streams is now illegal (carrying a fine of up to $11,000, or even jail). This is due to platypuses continually becoming caught in them whilst looking for food and subsequently drowning (they can only hold their breath for 30 to 40 seconds). On various occasions, three or more dead platypuses have been found in a single, abandoned opera house net. These deaths are completely preventable, and it is up to the wildlife loving public to help ensure these nets do not end up in our waterways.
So, when venturing out around Greater Melbourne in search of your own platypus experience, keep an eye out for opera house nets or fishing line in and around our waterways. Removing and reporting any opera house net use to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries could literally mean the difference between life and death for one of Australia’s most special creatures.
To report the use of illegal opera house nets in our waterways, call 13 FISH (136 186)