By HARRY CLARKE
SURE enough, within minutes of pulling up on the banks of the Dawson River at Theodore, platypus guru Tamielle Brunt spotted one of her unique and shy aquatic mammals, boldly swimming around and duck diving into water often visited by noisy tourists and locals alike.
Bingo. That’s exactly why she’s there – to document the mere presence of platypus in areas of the Dawson catchment as part of her research with Queensland Wildlife’s PlatypusWatch network.
But despite immediately spotting one at a key location along her research route, Brunt insists the ancient Australian icon is still an “elusive and cryptic” creature.
“A lot of people don’t see them in the wild,” she said.
“They’re not a species that you could go out and be confident that you’ll see a platypus, unlike kangaroos or even emus for example.
“They’re not something that you’d categorise as abundant and they can be quite shy in some areas. They’re not used to human disturbance. Seeing anything different on the banks, they’ll just disappear.”
But platypus have inhabited the Dawson River, which starts around Injune and runs north through the downs country around Taroom and Theodore before feeding into the Fitzroy River near Rockhampton, for probably as long as the catchment itself has existed.
Brunt said ancestral fossil records showed that the modern day platypus had been around for up to a 110 million years, endemic to much of Australia’s eastern seaboard.
It’s one of only three species of monotremes (egg-laying mammals) in existence, the other two being variations of another unique Australian icon, the echidna.
“They’re weird”, said Brunt, who has one platypus tattooed on her forearm and another dangling from a chain around her neck.
With their duck-like but “pliable and leathery” bills, splayed out paddles used to swim which can then retract “Wolverine style” to produce claws, and electro sensors used for hunting, the platypus was once thought to be fake.
“The thing that got the first European settlers thinking that this weird and wonderful creature was a hoax was this duck billed, beaver-tailed thing with flippers – what was this thing?” Brunt said.
“They used to have what were called asiatic fantasy makers, who would take different parts of animals and finely stitch them together. A mermaid was a little monkey torso with a fish tail and they’d try to pass them off as new species to naturalists.
“Most of the species back then were hunted, killed and sent back to England, so when this specimen of a platypus came in big vats of alcohol to the museum over in England, they thought it was a hoax.”
It’s the cryptic and elusive nature of platypus which fascinates Brunt, who is about to complete her PhD with the University of Queensland on how environmental factors can influence platypus genetics.
Queensland Government grant funding is allowing her and the rest of Wildlife Queensland’s Platypus Watch Network to study the animals’ presence and development throughout the Dawson River system.
There are about 20 locations along the Dawson where she’s using water samples to establish exactly where platypus populations are located.
“The Dawson River itself, being a big river system, would be the main thoroughfare for connectivity between populations,” Brunt said.
“If there are other tributaries along a river system, the main river would be kind of a highway for them to get to each other. That’s important for the integrity of genetics and making sure those populations are healthy and not inbreeding.
“If they’re isolated, if there’s a barrier like weirs or dams, that movement is then cut off you then potentially have issues of inbreeding which causes them problems with genetics and they may not be able to adapt to environmental changes that we are seeing.
“Connectivity is super important to these species and because they are solely dependent upon fresh water ecosystems, keeping water in the system is very important.”
Brunt’s instagram handle is @platypus-protector. She hopes the work of PlatypusWatch will help to raise the profile of her beloved creatures and contribute to their conservation.
“I just like their quirkiness,” she said.
“Everyone is completely mesmerised by them. It’s about trying to continue that fascination and get people connected to the platypus and to take action in wanting to help and conserve them.
“We’ve already lost them in some of the creek systems in Brisbane in the last 20 years. That’s the blink of an eye when it comes to a species.
“It’s a concern because they’re a species that you can’t see and we’re losing them under our noses.”