The rains came for three years, and kept coming. They came in waves and deluges and the incessant water entered the homes of people and animals across the Eastern Coast of Australia. As the waters rose, people moved to higher ground, or were forced into attics and onto roofs waiting for the long night to be over or the survival call of a rescue boat. Publicly the disaster was writ large in places like Lismore, Seymour and the Hawksbury.
And in burrows across the Eastern Coast, the platypus, an animal that has for millions of years moved with the ebbs and flows of the Australian climate, attempted the same.
During regular flooding events, the platypus is usually well-prepared. Their usual habitat is high on a creek system, to account for changing water levels. Their home will be supported by plentiful tree roots and vegetation which prevent erosion as fast flowing water rips through. They also provide a climbing frame for the platypus to escape the water.
Photo: Platypus make their homes on rivers and creek beds, with strong vegetation to escape regular event flooding. Credit: Pete Walsh
But with climate change, regular flooding has all but disappeared. The intervals between extreme weather events have become shorter, and disasters have become more severe and more frequent. The ability of the platypus to recover its natural habitat mirrors ours; we cannot sustain repeated extreme weather events without the gaps between them to rebuild.
Dr Gilad Bono from the Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW, has been studying platypuses for seven years. He says the extreme weather the platypus has been facing recently has tested the species.
“The sequence that we've had of the drought in 2019, the bushfires and then the flooding have been challenging on all species, including the platypus,” he says.
“In 2019, we were getting people calling us talking about drying rivers and scattered platypuses. We rescued a few platypuses, but the drought definitely had an impact. We've seen local extinctions of populations, even during the Millennium drought. Then the fires hit.”
Photo: Dr Gilad Bono has been studying platypus for seven years. Credit: Tom Kinsman/ACF
And after the catastrophic fires, came the catastrophic rains. And for platypus whose homes were already in trouble, the impact was more widely felt.
“The impact of flooding on platypuses is mediated by the condition of the habitat,” explains Gilad. “So in a pristine environment, the impact of floods will be smaller than in a degraded habitat.
“In an area where there's significant land clearing, when a flood hits, you're going to get much more sediment, siltation filling up the rivers and much more erosion and destruction of habitat.
“Water rising is not an issue for platypus. But debris might derail platypuses and a bad flood might drown puggles in their burrows, if the flooding happens during the breeding season where the young are in the depths of burrows,” he says.
With land clearing and deforestation at an all-time high, the East Coast river and creek systems the platypus depends on are degrading fast. And with it, so does the species.
“Over time, you're just going to have more and more areas where species disappear permanently. The platypus is no exception,” says Gilad.
Photo: In places like Werribee Gorge, the platypus are under threat from housing growth and stormwater issues. Credit: Annette Ruzicka
To support platypus during floods and droughts, bushfires, cyclones and storms, and prevent its extinction, a number of things will be required.
The first is a fuller understanding of the cryptic animal’s range across the Eastern seaboard. Collating this data, as recently organised by ACF’s platy-project, is a first step to accurately assess any potential changes in the distribution of the platypus.
In the short-term there are solutions to protect individual animals, says Gilad. “We need the capacity to rescue platypuses during extremely dry seasons; the next drought is around the corner. There are no facilities now to take platypuses and rescue them. You can't really take a platypus and move it somewhere else. Because that obviously puts stress on resident platypuses where the new platypuses are being transported to. Sydney’s Taronga Zoo are building a big facility for that, which will hopefully be finished next year. Mounting rescue of platypus is something that I think we'll have to develop.
“And then after that, as conditions improve, we might need to bring the platypuses back, and we need to facilitate dispersal and colonisation. We're having all of these impacts on the environment for economic development, facilitating growth and prosperity. But then we don't account for the long-term financial impacts that this would have.
“So we build this dam, but no one calculates, 20 years from now, we're going to be transporting platypuses across the dam. So that's something that we'll be moving into in the future.”
As the platypus experiences what we’re all likely to experience over the coming years – extreme weather events on a massive scale – the options for them are limited. Without restored habitats and protection when disasters do strike the fate of the species is still up in the air.
ACF is supporting the platypus through projects like the citizen science platy-project; aimed at tracking the movement or decline of the species against its range. Your donation can make a real difference in protecting this iconic animal for years to come.