Put it on his bill: saving the platypus

Clunes Primary School pupil Hutton, 11, studies the platypus. Picture: LACHLAN BENCE.

Clunes Primary School pupil Hutton, 11, studies the platypus. Picture: LACHLAN BENCE.

The platypus is a mysterious and shy Australian animal, with few people having the joy of seeing them in the wild.

Although they're not commonly seen, they may not be as far away as you think Nicole Cairns writes.

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KANGAROOS jumping through Canadian streets and koalas in Mt Helen backyard trees are weekly occurrences. But how about sightings of platypus splashing through a nearby creek?

As unusual as this may sound to some, the shy Australian mammal can be found in many waterways around the Ballarat region.

There have been many sighting in Creswick Creek at Clunes, as well as Skipton, Smeaton, Emu Creek and Cave Hill Creek.

The Clunes community has embraced its platypus friends, last year holding a Connect to the Creek educational platypus weekend.

Prue Simmons, from the Clunes Landcare Group, said the awareness around the platypus in the creek had grown over the past few years.

"With all the floods and changes to the creek there has been concern about the platypus, but they're still there," she said.

Ms Simmons moved to the Clunes area about five years ago to lead a more sustainable lifestyle after living in the city.

With a background in zoology, she thought the creek was a magnificent town asset, but didn't know about the wildlife surrounding it.

"I thought there were good nooks for platypus and other wildlife in the creek, but I thought surely there wouldn't be platypus living in there," she said.

Ms Simmons said the Landcare group had done a lot of work at the creek, including revegetation pollution prevention.

The group holds a working bee once a month, but many go down to the creek in there own time and platypus-watch recreationally.

She said Wesley College Clunes campus students helped as part of their community service and the Clunes Primary School pupils also gave a hand planting and raising town awareness through art projects.

"It teaches the young to enjoy and respect the space so early."

Ms Simmons said the creek was also home to the endangered growling grass frog. To further engage the community in the creek, the Landcare group will be hosting Fantastic Frogtoba weekend event this year.

"It's incredible to know those platypus and frogs are right in the centre of town."

She said they were easily spotted during breeding times and at dawn and dusk, as they foraged for food.

"Many people have seen platypus frolicking in the water."

Ms Simmons said the group was making more of an effort to document sightings, which were recorded at least once a month.

"That's just what is being recorded. If you to talk to people around town, many have seen them and may not be reporting it."

Clunes Primary School is a member of the Junior Landcare group and has become involved with the platypus initiatives and is working in preparation for Frogtoba.

Environment teacher Chris Charleson said the school spent a lot of time at the creek and part of last year's curriculum was dedicated to learning about the platypus in the lead-up to Frogtoba.

"The program helped the children understand the creatures a bit more and the needs of creek," Mr Charleson said.

Australian Platypus Conservancy conservational biologist Melody Serena said they did not have numbers for the region's platypus population.

"It's hard to know. We don't trap them to count," Dr Serena said.

"The population dropped a lot when the water dried up with the drought. They need adequate water flow to survive."

Dr Serena said the mammal could only feed in the water, eating mainly aquatic bugs.

"The platypus eats 20 per cent of its body weight each day, and while the female is lactating they can eat up to 80 per cent of its body weight per day, and that's all from the water.

"You can have platypus around, but if you don't have the right conditions, it won't be good enough to support breeding and populations growth. The females need enough food."

She said a woody habitat in the water was ideal, with tree roots, dead branches, leaves and trees in the water an idea space for aquatic bugs.

Dr Serena said having a woody habitat also prevented erosion, which allowed for deep holes which provided refuge for platypus during dry times and droughts.

She said platypus were found across most of Victoria, excluding the Mallee and the coastal area around Portland.

The Loddon River, which the Creswick Creek runs into, was an important area for the platypus, Dr Serena said.

"It was one of the most densely populated area for platypus in the 1990s before the drought."

She said it was important to improve the platypus population before another drought hit, to protect the population.

"We don't know how many platypus were affected by the last drought, but we do know they can't live without water."

Dr Serena said circular litter was a large threat to the platypus.

"We've found engine gaskets, plastic seal rings, elastic hair ties and bracelets caught on platypus. It kills them. People should cut any closed circular litter so it doesn't get caught on wildlife."

Lifelong Smeaton resident Ron Cosgrave has always known platypus to be around, growing up with them in the creek at his house.

He said he had known four to be living in the creek on his property at once stage before the drought.

"There's more around than people realise."

Mr Cosgrave saved platypus by redirecting water to fill up his creek, and when the water fell short he took it upon on himself to fill the creek.

However, the population was again threatened, when the 2011 floods hit.

"They've only came back over the past 18 months or so."

There are two of the adorable mammals in the creek now, but Mr Cosgrave said unless they were on the surface at the same time you couldn't count them.

"You just don't know many there are around."

Living on a property that has been in the family for a century, Mr Cosgrave said he had always known platypus to be around.

"They've been here at least as long as I've been here. You get to know a bit about them and grow respect for them.

"Did you know they swim underwater with their eyes closed? They only open their eyes when they come up to the surface."

He said the first time he saw a platypus was a child, while playing and exploring by the creek at his family property.

"You'd just see a splash and then they go underwater. They can come to the surface quite quickly."

He said he would go through phases where he would know their habits quite well.

"There was a time where I would go down about 5pm, and like clockwork they would be swimming around."

Mr Cosgrave caught a video of one swimming in his creek, which he posted on YouTube.

"I was hiding in the long grass while filming it. You've got to stand behind a tree and blend in."

He said he has also spotted water rats on his property.

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