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DNA to help monitor Australia’s elusive monotreme, the platypus

Josh Griffiths and Jacquie Murphy (EnviroDNA)

DNA is everywhere. Often thought to be a powerful tool for crime scenes and investigative police, its now environmental scientists turn to harness DNA detection. 

All organisms leave traces of DNA in the environment, referred to as environmental DNA or eDNA. Wildlife shed their skin cells, scales, mucous, faeces or hair into their surroundings. As genetic techniques have become cheaper and more sensitive, we can now detect these traces of DNA in environmental samples such as water, soil, or scats. 

Taking on this new approach to wildlife detection, Melbourne company, EnviroDNA uses eDNA as a method to detect and monitor native and invasive species. By detecting eDNA, our scientists can discover what species may be present in an environment without having to directly observe or capture the animal. This data helps professionals make informed environmental decisions for land and waterway management. 

Aquatic ecosystems are particularly suited to eDNA detection. DNA can accumulate in rivers and lakes from species who inhabit, visit, or live near the waterway and then disperse with flow to enable detection over larger areas. From a simple water sample, it is possible to obtain a genetic profile of the organisms that live in or adjacent to the waterway. 

For an elusive and notably shy creature like the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), eDNA has proven to be an amazing tool. Platypuses are notoriously difficult to study in the wild due to their widespread and sparse distribution, and their aquatic and mostly nocturnal habits. This is a key challenge that has hampered monitoring efforts of this species. eDNA is now allowing us to generate landscape-scale data on these elusive critters! 

Platypus are notoriously difficult to monitor, but by using eDNA techniques it is easier to monitor platypus population and across their geographic range. Credit: PlatypusSPOT

What the data is telling us 

The platypus has recently been placed under a media spotlight, for very good reason. Australia’s one-of-a-kind creature is suffering tremendously from the impacts of habitat loss, drought and climate change, and the devastating bushfires of last summer. 

The result of these impacts is a dwindling platypus population remaining in Australia. For a species already under serious stress in other parts of its range, the bushfires impacted some of the best remaining habitat in south-eastern Australia with an estimated 13% of all platypus habitat burnt. Using eDNA, and a before-after-control-impact design, EnviroDNA have revealed a 14-18% decline in sites where platypuses are found as a result of these fires. 

“With an increasing awareness of the declining state of platypus populations across their range, and potentially a change to their conservation status, eDNA will be a critical tool for ecologists to monitor future changes…” 

EnviroDNA have revealed a 14-18% decline in sites where platypuses are found as a result of these fires. 

Due to a recent push, using research undertaken by EnviroDNA and sister-company Cesar Australia, the Scientific Advisory Committee has made their final recommendation to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change to list the platypus as threatened in Victoria. This data has now been incorporated into a new campaign, led by the University of New South Wales and the Australian Conservation Foundation, to update the species’ national listing due to mounting evidence of declines and localised extinctions across Australia. 

EnviroDNA has also conducted a number of platypus eDNA projects with citizen scientists. These projects play important dual roles – to generate rigorous systematic data on local platypus populations, often for the first time, and to engage the local community and raise awareness of broader river health issues, using platypus as a flagship species. 

A way forward 

With an increasing awareness of the declining state of platypus populations across their range, and potentially a change to their conservation status, eDNA will be a critical tool for ecologists to monitor future changes and assess the impacts of various threats. If we are able to better understand where these elusive swimmers are present in waterways across Australia, increased efforts can be made to better manage and protect their remaining habitat. 

EnviroDNA hopes that these efforts will improve the chances of future generations being able to stumble across these wonderfully unique and irreplaceable creatures swimming in our waterways. 

For more information contact EnviroDNA: info@envirodna.com 

Monitoring platypus using eDNA techniques involves collecting water samples which are then tested for platypus DNA. Credit: EnviroDNA

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