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Iconic platypus feels the heat

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Matt Walker Matt Walker | 15:05 UK time, Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Duck-billed platypus (image: Dave Watts / NPL)

The very peculiar platypus (image: Dave Watts)

Life for the duck-billed platypus has never seemed easy.

With its bizarre bird-like beak, mammalian fur and reptilian gait and egg-laying habits, the platypus long mystified natural historians, who were unsure of its origin, or place in the world.

When the first platypus was shipped to the UK from Australia, people thought it was a joke and that someone had sewn a duck's bill to a mammal's body, so the story goes, while the animal has in the past been hunted by European settlers on the Australian continent for its fur.

Now it seems life may be about to get a little harder for this strange-looking monotreme.

New research suggests that climate change, specifically the warming of the Australian continent, may have a previously unrecognised damaging impact on the platypus.

In short, the platypus likes the cool waters of the rivers and streams in which it lives. And as temperatures rise, life in these waters may literally get too hot to handle.

Thermal image of a platypus (image: Jenny Davis)

A thermal image of a platypus reveals that heat only escapes through the animal's eyes, which are closed shut when underwater (image: Jenny Davis)

The research is important for a number of reasons.

First it highlights the plight of one of the world’s most intriguing animals.

Second, it provides detailed data that shows how climate change may potentially negatively impact species – and not just any easy-to-ignore species, but an evolutionary icon, and an animal symbolic of the wildlife on an entire continent.

Third, it reveals something not often discussed when it comes to the impact of climate change – how changing temperatures will affect aquatic habitats, making rivers, ponds and lakes warmer, as well as terrestrial habitats affected by warming air temperatures.

The platypus has a unique lifestyle: baby platypuses have teeth that they shed when entering adulthood, while males are one of the few poisonous mammals known, having spurs on their webbed otter-like feet. Like the other monotremes, such as the echidna, the platypus has an extra sense not available to other mammals – being able to sense electric fields through electroreceptors in its bill.

But it is its water-loving habits that make it vulnerable to climate change, according to research published in the journal Global Change Biology by Professor Jenny Davis and colleagues at Monash University in Clayton, Australia.

“The platypus is a wonderfully insulated animal – it swims around in one of the most luxurious examples of a fur coat,” Prof Davis tells me.

This rich coat enables it to feed for up to 10 hours a day in water that can be close to zero degrees Centigrade. But it may also prove to be the platypus’s Achilles’ heel.

“The highly insulating fur is an asset for surviving in cooler climates but becomes a liability in warmer conditions,” explains Prof Davis.

Apart from staying in its burrow within the stream or river bank, she says, the platypus has few cooling strategies available to it. But it can’t feed when it’s in its burrow, so taking refuge there would ultimately lead to starvation.

John Gould print image of the platypus,1863

John Gould print image of the platypus,1863

“This suggested to us that it is may be very vulnerable to a warming climate.”

To find out how vulnerable, Prof Davis’s team examined a map of the known distribution of the platypus. They found the occurrence of the platypus is linked to rainfall. That explains why the platypus is absent from the arid central and western half of the Australian continent. But they are also absent from Australia’s warm well-watered tropical regions, apart from sites along the east coast that contain cool, deep gorges.

So the scientists set out to determine which is more important in determining where platypuses live: rainfall or temperature.

Australia’s climate is highly variable, and aquatic species are especially affected by the “boom and bust” ecology caused by droughts and flood. But the researchers found a way to separate out this effect from the longer term warming trend.

They used more than 9000 records of platypus distribution over the past two centuries (1800 – 2009) to model the affects of rainfall and temperature.

What they found surprised them immensely.

Up until the 1960’s rainfall determined where platypuses lived. Since then, temperature dominates, having a bigger influence on their distribution.

This switch correlates directly with the change in annual maximum temperatures in southeastern Australia – which have risen in recent years.

Distribution map of the platypus (image: Melissa and Roland Klamt)

Distribution map of the platypus (image: Melissa and Roland Klamt)

Warmer temperatures, it seems, are starting to drive out the platypus from previous habitats.

“Our results clearly indicate that we now need to start thinking about the importance of maintaining aquatic thermal refugia,” Prof Davis warns.

Water temperatures are cooler at night, when platypuses forage, and deep water will be “thermally buffered” from some of the effects of warming temperatures.

That offers some hope. But a warmer climate also means a drier climate, and platypuses will spend longer enduring hotter temperatures as they travel further overland between shrinking pools and drying rivers.

Much remains to be investigated.

If this trend continues, the platypus may happily hold on in cooler parts of its range; on the islands of Tasmania, King island and Kangaroo island, for example.

But little is still known about this weirdly brilliant animal.

They are not easily trapped, are easily camouflaged and are a shy and mainly nocturnal species, so accurate estimates of platypus numbers are hard to come by.

That means it may be a long time before anyone realises they are disappearing from local rivers in which they were once abundant.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    I am left a bit confused by the first two comments. What the article is saying is that if the Australian Continent warms due to climate change then the Platypus may suffer due to it's inability to adapt quickly to these conditions. Evidence of recent warming in Australia can be found on the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website. This article gives no reasons for climate change so I am unsure which bits are in dispute.

  • Comment number 4.

    Comment #1, "Disgraceful BBC"? Yes just take all the scientific facts about global warming, throw them away and believe what you want to, idiots.

  • Comment number 5.

    Many former IPCC panel members have spoken out against the conclusions drawn by the IPCC since they were based on unsound climate models and are not borne out by actual temperature measurement. The lack of any credible data to prove their case is probably why they have switched from Global Warming to Climate Change: then even a drop in temperature or anything weather related can be used to bolster their argument.

  • Comment number 6.

    "In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages,famine, and the like would fit the bill"......" It would seem that humans need a common motivation, namely a common adversary to organize and act together in the vacuum; such a motivation must be found to bring the divided nations together to face an outside enemy, either a real one or else one imagined for this purpose". From "The First Global Revolution" published by The Club Of Rome, 1992. The Club of Rome works with the United Nations to develop policy guidance documents which the U.N. uses in creating its policies and programs.

  • Comment number 7.

    Sorry "hooded-claw" and "Stan Mason", I think you are way off topic here.

    This is simply a short piece reporting on some scientific research about the distribution of the platypus in OZ. We now know more about the reasons why the Platypus is found where it is. A nice piece of science - observation... theory... more observation to test the theory... partial conclusions... more observation... etc. They need cold water!

    I visited the website "Stan" recommended, and am sorry to report that it's full of tiny articles that seem to contain short anti-climate change soundbites, with name dropping, but no real scientific "meat" to get your teeth into. Sorry gents. As I see it, while there is not 100% agreement about what's behind the changes we see in our climate, there is a consensus in the scientific community, and thankfully that seems to be spreading to a wider community too, that the climate of this planet is changing.

    Whether you "believe" in global warming or not is not really the point. There is PLENTY of scientific evidence that our environment ("climate" is one of the many factors used to measure that) is changing. While the reasons are many and varied, it seems clear that human activity is behind much of it.

    There is plenty of evidence that Australia is getting warmer, and also running out of usable water. How else do you explain the droughts that have lasted longer than previously, the clear indication that mean temperatures are rising, etc., etc.?

  • Comment number 8.

    Stan and hooded_claw - let's look at what this website is: - it's written by Vincent Grey. It's just his website, with a fancy title. For a deconstruction of this twerp and his credentials, try this:

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2006/05/you_too_can_be_a_leading_clima.php

  • Comment number 9.

    This blog is now under constant barrage of AGW deniers. So wanting to be the brave truthiness-mongering crowd it now appears any and every BBC article is fair game. Never mind that these researchers have no connection to the Club of Rome or their machine-fantasies (as Adam Curtis put it) and failed predictions or whatever [insert-secret-cabal].

    The general message they're forcefully conveying appears to be nothing more than 'shut up' because literally every wildlife article which mentions a species being in decline is ungratefully greeted by blind angry "scepticism" (I suppose their next step is that even tried and tested scientific counting methods of animal numbers will be proven a conspiracy of some kind in the denier blogosphere).

    It's bad enough almost 400 species go extinct every day, how long are we going to be stuck in a collective limbo of indecision regarding even the facts of our obvious trespasses. Atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, neutron bombs etc. could kill all multi-cellular life on our planet a thousand times over, yet AGW deniers cling to their fantasy that humans principally cannot have an adverse affect on their environment. That's not healthy scepticism, it's magical thinking.

  • Comment number 10.

    Department of Defense, Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Agencies, Environmental Organizations.... All spending money planning for climate change. Gas and Oil interests spending record sums to pay "scientists" to deny human caused climate change. This kind of money doesn't get spent for a "made up problem." Deniers need to get off their band wagon and realize that we all live on this planet together, and that biodiversity is a remarkable gift we should not piss away. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments debunking the deniers, hats off to you.

  • Comment number 11.

    hooded_claw wrote 'The lack of any credible data to prove their case is probably why they have switched from Global Warming to Climate Change'

    Like I said check the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website for all the factual data on the warming climate in Australia. This article is about how warming (that is in progress) could affect Platypus numbers. Explain which part of that you are disputing.

  • Comment number 12.

    #3 & 11. Verzino, The article makes several references to the effects of climate change and it is Climate Change or whatever they are now calling AWG that I am referring to.
    #4. Miker201, "Yes just take all the scientific facts about global warming, throw them away and believe what you want to, idiots." - Funnily enough, that's precisely what the IPCC did with the report they released.
    #7. David Howe. I'm attempting to bring some balance and reason to the one sided view we always get from the Biased Broadcasting Corporation whenever they come out with another scare story.
    As for "a consensus in the scientific community'', I take it you mean the part of the scientific community whose views the IPCC and the media allow to be taken into consideration, regardless of relevant qualifications, and not the part that includes the qualified climate scientists who left the IPCC in disgust?
    #9 Mutopia. "tried and tested scientific counting methods"? Yes, how are those drowning polar bears Al Gore warned us about? Oh, they're still alive and thriving, I see.
    ''The general message they're forcefully conveying appears to be nothing more than 'shut up' ". I think you'll find that is the stance of the alarmists with their mantras of "There is a consensus on the science" and "The time for debate is over". Far from wanting people to shut up, I would welcome a full, open televised debate where BOTH sides are given a equal platform to air their views but this doesn't happen on MSM, hence my posts here.
    #10. Royal Brougham. "This kind of money doesn't get spent for a "made up problem.""" This kind of money gets spent because it will bring in much more money for the banker owned governments of the world in carbon taxes and cap and trade scams. Have a look at this article by a leading member of the IPCC
    http://real-agenda.com/2010/11/25/u-n-official-climate-issue-is-for-wealth-redistribution/
    BTW, for what it's worth, I've always recycled as much home waste as possible; I am anti pollution, pro clean air, clean energy and clean environment; I'm kind to puppies and polar bears alike and me ol' mum loves me. However, the following facts remain:
    1. CO2 is not a pollutant and has been shown to be beneficial to agriculture resulting in faster plant growth.
    2. Temperature rise does not drive CO2 and man is responsible for only a tiny fraction of this minor greenhouse gas, water vapour being by far the biggest.
    3. In the past, the earth has had far higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere than now with no catastrophic results.
    4. I'm inclined to believe that the big yellow hot thing in the sky has a much greater effect on temperature and climate than CO2.
    Peace..

  • Comment number 13.

    Could it be that some sense is returning to the world or will we still be forced to pay a tax on carbon whilst China can not only carry on emitting far more carbon than us but do it using the dirtiest coal fired power stations instead of the clean burn alternatives? http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/06/08/uk-climate-canada-idUKTRE7575T520110608

  • Comment number 14.

    Point 2 in my comment above should have read:
    Temperature rise is not driven by CO2, more CO2 is released from the oceans as the temperature increases.

  • Comment number 15.

    @hooded claw... I think you'll find CO2 is a pollutant as it causing a greenhouse effect by absorbing infra-red emitted from earth. Ofcourse it helps crops grow...as it is vital in photosynthesis but the amount in the atmosphere increasing has little effect on how fast they grow as there are many other limiting factors.
    CO2 also causes ocean acidifcation, which is destroying vital phytoplankton that account for more than half the photosynthesis on earth. Increasing CO2 causes more to be dissolved in the ocean, turning into carbonic acid that can dissolve the calcium carbonate exoskeletons of the plankton.
    Obviously CO2 is important to have. We'd be dead without CO2 in the atmosphere as it keeps the Earth warm and we'd freeze without it. The problem is that there is far too much, and its causing more and more heat to be trapped on Earth.
    And, the 'big yellow hot thing' obviously effects the temperature and it goes hand in hand with the CO2. Visible light that is absorbed by the Earth, is re-radiated from the earth at a lower wavelength (Infra red) which is the radiation that GHG's absorb.
    Stop spouting this utter rubbish about people trying to make money from it. It is not a scam. It is the future and people like you attempt to hold back society into preventing these changes from happening. Luckily, we aren't all as ridiculous as you are...

  • Comment number 16.

    Also, hooded_claw, temperature rise IS driven by CO2. And that temperature rise can cause release of CO2 from oceans, yes. That is called positive feedback.

  • Comment number 17.

    Over the horizon, a herd of wildebeests.
    Their goalkeeper, a Duck-Billed Platypus.
    His engine's running.
    BRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

  • Comment number 18.

    Hooded_claw is a troll. That is the political aim of climate change deniers. Its to fill the air with spurious "whats the proof" arguments to delay an organised response to a global problem. The tobacco companies followed the exact same strategy for decades to stop measures undermining their business. The oil companies, principally Exxon are sponsoring the latest fudging. However, the stakes are too high to allow this delay to continue and the scientific community are largely ignoring them.

    Ultimately the energy crisis will overtake the debate and make sustainable power the only solution. This targeted lobbying is just delaying the process and likely to cause more hardship while the infrastructure is put in place in any case.

  • Comment number 19.

    I note another article by Richard Black; World's oceans in 'shocking' decline. is closed to further comments. I would be interested to know his opinion of an comment/investigation on this site :-
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/06/a-deep-sea-mystery.html
    It says that the artice is grey science and is propoganda from environmentalist groups.

  • Comment number 20.

    I wonder if the platypus wonders why it's getting warmer!

  • Comment number 21.

    18. Global Warming crusaders need to look at the facts.

    From Paul Hudson Blog /BBC.


    News from scientists in America claiming that the sun is about to enter a prolonged quiet period in its history has caught the headlines this week.

    Whether this particular prediction comes true remains to be seen, as some scientists, including those at NASA, have consistently been proved wrong with their solar cycle forecasts in the last few years

    But we should be under no illusions that if the sun does continue to be weaker than normal over a prolonged period of time, and it enters a so called 'Maunder minimum', then we could have to re-think what 'normal' weather means for the British Isles in the coming decades.

    The idea that the sun has not been behaving as it should will come as no surprise to readers of this blog; nor will the concept that variations in the behaviour of the sun could affect our weather.

    Although some mainstream scientists and meteorologists seem to have been reluctant to accept that this is the case, there is now a growing realisation that the sun could play a crucial role in our weather, in large part through the way it impacts the position of the jet stream, although the mechanism of how this happens is not properly understood.

    David Archibald, an Australian scientist, predicted over two years ago that we were about to enter a 'Dalton minimum'; a period of low solar activity in the early 1800's which led to much colder winters across the UK.

    The Maunder Minimum of 1650-1715, a much longer period of low solar activity, coincided with severe winters, leading some climatologists to call it 'The Little Ice Age'.

    Professor Lockwood, a respected mainstream scientist from Reading University carried out similar research a year later and reached broadly the same conclusions as David Archibald as to what this could mean for the UK's climate.

    The implications for our weather in this research are clear. The jet stream on average could be further south than would normally be the case. This ribbon of strong winds high up in the atmosphere marks the boundary between cold air to the north and warm air to the south, and is where most rain bearing weather systems across the UK form.

    In winter, the UK would be much more vulnerable to cold air from the north & east. Summers could be cooler and unsettled. In fact the winters and summers we have experienced in the last few years could become the norm.

    Professor Lockwood pointed out in more recent research that it could also mean that on average there would be less wind, especially in winter with more areas of high pressure - with direct implications for energy security because of the huge expansion of wind farms the UK will witness in the next few years.

    The impact on the global climate is much less clear.

    Prof Lockwood pointed out that winters in the UK may continue to be much colder on average, but the action of a weak sun has been to disrupt the earth's climate and re-distribute the planet's heat - in fact the last two winters have seen areas of the globe like Northern Canada and Alaska seeing exceptional winter warmth.

    A study last year in Geophysical Research Letters did however find that should we enter a prolonged period of low solar activity in the coming decades, global temperatures could be lower by 0.3C by the end of the century, compared to normal solar activity - but that this would be dwarfed by warming due to man-made greenhouse gases. This thinking is backed by most mainstream scientists.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/paulhudson/

  • Comment number 22.

    I am glad I've seen the platypus last year, before it gets extinct...
    To the trolls: yes, scientists disagree. It's their job to be skeptic. However in this instance, the disagreement is on minuscule procedural things (which model is best? Exactly how many degrees?), not on the whole picture (more than 95% agrees that the weather is warming and it is likely due to human activity). I have not met (or read) a single Scientist (note the capital "S") denying that the climate is changing quite faster than it should be doing naturally, faster than the species can evolve to adapt to it.
    If we leave it to the trolls, this planet is doomed. I still hope in a "12 monkeys" scenario, though...

  • Comment number 23.

    hooded_claw I know it is climate change you are referring to. It is just that you have failed to answer my query twice. What in the article above are you disputing? That the climate is changing? If you are disputing that then you are an idiot. That the Platypus may be affected by the change? Maybe you are a monotreme expert. If you are not disputing either of these then this is not the place to post your conspiracy theories.

  • Comment number 24.

    Hi Matt, I feel like such a pedant saying this but isn't it true that the Platypus is venemous, rather than poisonous?

  • Comment number 25.

    Hi ADE #24 - yes you're absolutely right. The male platypus has spurs on the hind limb that produces a venom. Some of the proteins in this venom appear to be uniquely produced by the species, and the venom is strong enough to incapacitate or kill smaller animals. However, it may be that the males use the venom on each other, when jousting during the breeding season.

  • Comment number 26.

    Yes, and Australia will continue to warm as the continent continues its march to the North. So who will stop continental drift to forever save the lovely Platypus.

  • Comment number 27.

    I don't want to associate myself in any way with the anti-global warming loony faction, but I can't avoid pointing out that platypuses have been around in one shape or form for at least the last 110 million years, a period during which there has been the occasional climactic fluctuation or two. I doubt a few degrees of global warming are going to unduly inconvenience them.

  • Comment number 28.

    LyndonApGwynfryn - Pyrenean Ibex, Hawaiian Po'ouli, bajii (river dolphin), Western Black Rhino, Liverpool Pigeon, Alaotra Grebe, Eastern Cougar - these were all around in one shape or form for at least 110 million years (much longer depending how you look at it), but unfortunately, mostly due to human activity, they have all been 'unduly inconvenienced' in the last 20 years and are now extinct.

 

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