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  • Kaia Colestock


We have to dedicate time to this incredible animal. Perhaps my favorite animal as a child, duck-billed platypus was one of those elusive, fairytale animals that is found in strange and far-away worlds. Ornithorhynchus anatinus is one of five extant species of monotreme (egg-laying mammal) in existance, along with four species of echidna. Their appearance is so odd (duck bill, beaver tail, otter foot), that the first European naturalist that examined one in 1799 thought it was a fake and actually several animals sewn together. There are still marks where the scientist poked and prodded the specimen to ensure it wasn’t a hoax.

Elias and I began our search for platypus over two months ago in Queensland, in the Atherton Tablelands, which is considered one of the best places in northern Australia to find this creature. We were met with a lot of uneventful viewings of muddy waters, quiet rivers with barely a ripple, and muggy conditions that challenge anyone to stand motionless for hours and wait for a glimpse. Some people would bring up chairs and plan to make a morning of it by the river, hoping for a peek. By the end of the trip, we must have visited over a dozen places, solely with platypus in mind.

Finally, as we were leaving our last known “good chance” spot at the Bombala Platypus Reserve, I half-heartedly searched online one more time for good locations to look - this time targeting Canberra. One of the options further down the list was a man that wrote a piece in his own blog. He had searched for platypus off and on for years and finally stumbled on the right spot - Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve - specifically, the Sanctuary. It so happened that we had booked a campsite within 20 minutes of this reserve, so we gave it a shot.

We arrived during the highest heat of the day, which is the worst possible time to search for platypus. They normally sleep for up to 14 hours a day, and most of that is during the time when it’s not cost-effective to expend energy. As an alternative, we explored the reserve slowly, one pond and one trail at a time, getting the lay of the land.

I remember reading in the man’s blog that the “Weir” was the sweet spot where he found his platypus. The Weir was a small, but deep pond in the far back of the Sanctuary, held up by a five-foot dam that overflowing into a creek.

The pond was overgrown with trees bordering the edge, but you could peek out at the water in a couple places. If I was a platypus, this would be the place I would go. We watched for 10 minutes or so, but it was quite warm, and not a thing moved. It felt like our best chance was to return first thing in the morning. The Sanctuary opened at 0730, and we could skip all else and walk straight here. So that was the plan.

At 0650 the next morning, we were in position at the gate, ready for entry. A line of people began piling up behind us, also with a similar plan, perhaps? By 0715, park staff rolled up and opened the gate. We all rushed through like the gates of the Kentucky Derby. It took about 15 minutes to drive to the far end of the Sanctuary, but we were alone. All the cars had peeled away and gone to other trails.

We grabbed our optical gear and walked briskly to the Weir, stopping only briefly to photograph this long-nosed potoroo.

As we approached the Weir, our steps slowed and Elias signaled that something was making ripples in the water. General strategy is to “follow the bubbles.” Something was swimming under the water and leaving disturbance trails. Before Elias could get a word out, I was running down the path to the lower viewpoints that are eye-level with the water. Sure enough, something surfaced. A PLATYPUS!!!

We watched it dive and surface every 20 seconds. Between my racing around getting photos, and another family that arrived during this period, the platypus must have been spooked and finally went down one last time and disappeared. It likely returned to a burrow at the edge of the pond. Like other monotremes, platypus sense their prey through electrolocation, or detect electrical fields generated by muscular contractions. Electroreceptors are evenly-distributed in the skin of the bill. The side-to-side motion of their hunting technique determines the electric source by comparing differences in signal strength. The difference in arrival times of the signals determine distance of the prey. Platypus close their eyes, ears, and nose each time they dive, relaying entirely on electric currents. They eat worms, larvae, freshwater shrimp, and crayfish. And they need to forage about 12 hours a day to eat 20% of their weight a day.

As of 2020, Platypus is now legally protected in all states where it occurs in eastern Australia and Tasmania. They suffer from the fungus Mucor amphibiorum, mainly on Tasmania, and habitat loss and disruption. The Australian equivalent of the Endangered Species Act in the States - the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - is the framework that protects platypus. Lists of fauna under the Act are the primary reference to threatened species in Australia and are available online through the Species Profile and Threats Database (SPRAT). The website is also a good resource to document findings in the field.

We were alone with the platypus for 12 minutes. Had the park staff not arrived 15 minutes early to let us in the gate, or other people walked with us down to the Weir, we may have missed it altogether. We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have shared a few moments with this animal. It is our hope that reserves like Tidbinbilla continue to provide critical habitat for endemic species like this and many others.

(Above) Sunrise at the Weir in Tidbinbilla Reserve, moments after the platypus disappeared.

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