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Dr Nerissa Hannink
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The University of Melbourne, San Diego Zoo Global and conservation group cesar have teamed up to begin a unique project designed to learn more about the elusive platypus and the threats to its survival. 

The project uses an innovative technology where samples of water are tested for traces of environmental DNA (eDNA) to learn about the species present in freshwater ecosystems.

University of Melbourne Research Fellow Reid Tingley said all animals leave traces of their presence behind as they move through an environment – this can be skin cells, hair, faeces or mucous.

“We can extract DNA from these environmental samples and identify the species that left their DNA behind,” Dr Tingley said.

Information gained from the eDNA analysis will allow the researchers to create a spatial map of the species present in hundreds of waterways in south eastern Australia – and in particular, whether platypuses are present at the sampled sites.

This will be the largest survey undertaken for platypuses and will allow researchers to comprehensively map their current distribution. The information will guide next steps for the protection of platypuses, and the ecosystems they depend on, throughout Victoria and New South Wales.

cesar Senior Wildlife Ecologist Josh Griffiths said: “Many platypus populations are now located in highly modified waterways that will come under greater stress with climate change and an increasing human population.

“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.

The application of the new eDNA technology will also allow researchers to ascertain information that will contribute to conservation efforts for threatened species of native fish, such as the Australian grayling, Macquarie perch, Yarra pygmy perch, Barred galaxias and Dwarf galaxias, while also identifying where invasive species are present.

San Diego Zoo Global has previously worked on projects involving the koala and the Tasmanian devil and the zoo is now working with the platypus on 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.

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