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Danger heats up for Australia's platypus

27 june 2011, 11:05
0
Global warming could shrink the habitat of Australia's iconic duck-billed platypus by a third. ©AFP
Global warming could shrink the habitat of Australia's iconic duck-billed platypus by a third. ©AFP
Global warming could shrink the habitat of Australia's duck-billed platypus by a third, with hotter, drier temperatures threatening its survival, AFP reports, citing researchers Friday.

A confusion of bird, mammal and reptile characteristics, the timid platypus is one of Australia's most cryptic creatures, feeding at night and living in deep waterside burrows to dodge predators such as foxes and eagles.

But its thick, watertight fur coat -- one of the key tools to ensuring its survival in the cool depths of rivers and waterholes -- could spell disaster in a warming climate, according to a new study from Monash University.

Using weather and platypus habitat data stretching back more than 100 years, researchers were able to map declines in particular populations in connection with droughts and heat events.

The team then extrapolated their findings across a range of climate change scenarios laid out by the government's science research agency, CSIRO, to model how global warming would affect the unusual native species.

"Our worst case scenario at the moment suggested a one-third reduction in their suitable habitat," researcher Jenny Davis told AFP of the work published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Other human impacts, including land clearing and the damming of waterways for hydroelectric projects, had and would continue to diminish platypus homes, she added.

"Under a drying climate we'll be taking more water away from the environment because of our human needs, and predators are going to become more of an issue for (the) platypus," she said.

The most dire predictions suggested the platypus would disappear from Australia's mainland entirely, able only to live on southern King, Kangaroo and Tasmania islands, said Davis.

Davis said the nocturnal creature already appeared to be responding to increases in Australia's average temperature, with certain populations shrinking from the 1960s, when a warming trend first became evident.

"Compared with 50 years ago some places have become too warm for them, their habitat is shrinking," she said, but added that the platypus was not yet considered endangered.

Davis said the potential demise of the platypus was "just another warning sign" of global warming's impact on Australia's unique wildlife.

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