Innovative eDNA Technology Being Used to Track Platypus

The University of Melbourne, San Diego Zoo Global and cesar have teamed up to begin a unique project designed to learn more about the elusive platypus and threats to its survival. The project uses innovative technology in which samples of water are tested for traces of environmental DNA (eDNA) to learn about the species present in freshwater ecosystems.

“All animals leave traces of their presence behind as they move through an environment,” says Reid Tingley, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Melbourne. “This can be skin cells, hair, feces or mucous. We can extract DNA from these environmental samples—and identify the species that left their DNA behind.”

Information gained from the eDNA analysis will allow the researchers to create a spatial map of the species present in hundreds of waterways in southeastern Australia—and, in particular, determine whether platypuses are present at the sampled sites. This will be the largest survey ever undertaken for the platypus, and it will allow researchers to comprehensively map their current distribution. This information will guide the next steps for protection of the platypus and the ecosystems they depend on, throughout Victoria and New South Wales in Australia.

“Many platypus populations are now located in highly modified waterways that will come under greater stress with climate change and an increasing human population,” says Josh Griffiths, senior wildlife ecologist at cesar. “Platypuses are very adaptable and can survive—and even thrive—in waterways modified by urbanization or agriculture, with the appropriate regional planning and community efforts to preserve waterway health.”

Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the status of the platypus from a species of Least Concern to Near Threatened. Conservationists say that this new project is especially important, to ensure that the platypus does not become further endangered in the future.

In addition to providing needed data on the platypus, the application of the new eDNA technology will allow researchers to ascertain information that will contribute to conservation efforts for threatened species of native fish—including Australian grayling, Macquarie perch, Yarra pygmy perch, barred galaxias and dwarf galaxias—while also identifying where invasive species are present.

As with its work for the koala and the Tasmanian devil, San Diego Zoo Global is beginning this effort with the platypus with the intent of doing long-term research for conservation of this rare species. The project is being undertaken with other collaborators, including the Victorian Government (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning), the NSW Government (Office of Environment and Heritage) and Melbourne Water.