The ever-elusive platypus

Ancient mythology speaks of an attractive female duck who fell in love with a persuasive, yet lonely water rat. The charming duck’s offspring had their mother’s wonderful bill and intricate webbed feet. They inherited their father’s thick fur.

As Europeans ventured across this continent, these peculiar critters, colloquially referred to as ‘water moles’, were observed in and around the creeks, rivers and lakes of our intriguing landscape.

A specimen was soon dispatched back to England for scientific identification. Suspicions in London were heightened, and it was suspected to be an elaborate hoax from a distant colony. Sharp scissors cut the plush pelt searching for the suspected stiches which had attached the duck-like bill to the skin.

No stiches were found. Evolution had spoken.

Our elusive platypus is one of the world’s most unique creatures. With its soft double coat, this warm-blooded mammal nurtures its young with nourishing milk. Yet it lays soft-shelled eggs much like a bird. What a contradiction. Under water, its highly sensitive bill emits minute electronic pulses scanning for carnivorous prey to feast upon. The males are equipped with venomous spurs to help them proficiently sort out any disagreements with would-be predators. Its closest relative is the land loving spiny echidna.

As far as egg-laying mammals go, our monotremes are without equal.Representing an entire species dating back some 165 million years, they are the most evolutionary advanced mammals on the planet.

With a reputation of being seldom seen, platypuses are indeed resilient. They occupy an ecological niche in a diverse range of riparian habitats, so patience is the secret to a rewarding experience of observing them in the wild.

Amongst many platypus hot spots, the wetland sanctuary nestled in the heart of the stunning Tidbinbilla Valley is a must. Here you have a breathtaking opportunity to observe a playful platypus going about its business; foraging on the surface before submerging searching for prey.

The Queanbeyan River, close to the city centre, is another hot spot and illustrates that people and platypuses can cohabit. However, very little is known of their distribution across our wider region.

Your opportunity to glean an insight into the fascinating world that is the life of a platypus looms large. Geoff Williams from the Australian Platypus Conservancy will be in the bush capital to share his knowledge of this amazing animal.

Geoff will provide hints on how to spot platypus in the wild, touching on opportunities for becoming involved in the Australian Platypus Monitoring Network, an exciting new ‘citizen science’ programme designed to build on our collective knowledge of this quintessentially unique species.

Where: The Robertson Building, ANU.

When: Thursday 2 May starting at 7.00pm.

Image courtesy of David Pope

Brett McNamara is with ACT Parks & Conservation Service.

Brett Mac

Brett McNamara - Regional Manager with ACT Parks & Conservation Service

Brett loves our national parks almost as much as the Gang-gang on his uniform. He is prone to using the word 'majestic' when referring to the bush capital. He loves talking. A lot. His favourite animal is the playful platypus.

Article also appeared on 16 April 2019 in The Chronicle