The ecological devastation wrought by the Australian bushfires is impossible to overstate: The sprawling blazes have grown large enough to make their own apocalyptic weather (fire weather), they have wiped out species scientists hadn’t even discovered yet, and in addition to displacing hundreds of thousands of people (and killing dozens more), they have likely obliterated more than 1 billion animals. Although a heavy rain has helped firefighters contain the flames, many living things — koalas! bugs! flora AND fauna! humans! — remain in danger.
Chief among them: the platypus, a specific-to-Australia wonder that, according to a new study from researchers at the University of New South Wales Sydney Centre for Ecosystem Science, may now be on track toward extinction due to long-term drought. Help! We must save these wonderful weirdos before it’s too late.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the platypus, but truly, it is an astounding creature. It looks like what you’d get if you crossed a beaver with a duck, something you obviously can’t do, but still: Note its sleek brown body, its slappy paddle tail juxtaposed with the bill and webbed feet previously relegated to water fowl. This beautiful mutant is a “secretive and nocturnal” aquatic mammal, one of only two egg-laying mammal species.
Platypuses live in and around water, meaning recent climate events have hit them hard. Australia’s bushfires ignited toward the end of the hottest and driest year the country has yet seen, the drought drying up rivers and stranding platypuses. According to the study, the platypus already faces a “potentially devastating combination of threats, including water-resource development, land clearing, climate change, and increasingly severe periods of drought.” It is hard to get a handle on the size of the platypus population because these duckbills prefer to do their thing at night, but researchers estimate that under “current climate conditions,” platypus numbers will decline by 47 to 66 percent over the next 50 years, making them extinct across 40 percent of their platypus dominion. When you factor in the weather events that come with the climate crisis — longer, more intense droughts, for example — those numbers rise to 51 to 73 percent.
“Even for a presumed ‘safe’ species such as the platypus, mitigating or even stopping threats, such as new dams, is likely to be more effective than waiting for the risk of extinction to increase and possible failure,” study co-author, Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne, said in a news release. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature reportedly lists the platypus as near-threatened.) “We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs.”