Platypus ecologist Josh Griffiths inspects the threatened animal’s habitat near the recent wildfires. Photo courtesy San Diego Zoo Global

Platypus ecologist Josh Griffiths is expressing grave concern about the status of platypus populations in Australia following the massive fires.

The conservationist, who works for San Diego Zoo Global and the Australian organization cesar, was recently able to access some of the habitats that had previously been a major field site for tracking native platypus populations. Although downstream areas appeared on the surface to be untouched, his survey indicated the presence of significant ash in the water.

“As I look around, it’s actually a very sad sight: This was one of my favorite parts of the state, and now all the vegetation has been burned,” said Griffiths. “The river itself is full of ash and sediment that has washed into it, and I just imagine the impact that is having on the aquatic animals—and particularly on the platypus.”

Platypus populations were considered to be at risk before the recent wildfires that burned through the area. The species’ status was recently uplisted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, to Near Threatened. Unfortunately, the region that burned was considered to be a stronghold for the platypus, with some of the healthiest populations in the country. Researchers indicate that they do not yet know how the populations have been affected.

“A lot of the research we have been doing has revealed that platypus populations were not doing very well—and that was before the bushfires,” said Griffiths. “We know that smaller waterways are just going to evaporate completely. The fires burned that hot: they are just going to vaporize those waterways. Larger rivers are going to have longer-term impacts.”

San Diego Zoo Global began an effort with cesar to learn more about the elusive platypus in 2018. The study—the largest-scale investigation of platypus populations in history—was intended to help people better manage waterways to protect platypus and other species that depend on them.

With funding raised by San Diego Zoo Global’s Australian Wildfire Relief Campaign, researchers are now also going to assess the status of the platypus population in the wake of the fires, with the hope of guiding future recovery for the species.

Over the past decade, cesar researchers have played a leading role in Australian platypus monitoring efforts. Cesar uses cutting-edge monitoring technology and research to provide practical and innovative wildlife conservation solutions.

As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts for both plants and animals at the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents.