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Platypus detectives use crime scene technology to unlock monotreme mysteries

Forensic crime scene technology is used to search the freshwater currents of Eastern Australia for the elusive platypus which, despite centuries of research, holds secrets that still remain a mystery to modern science.

Platypuses, which are already struggling to survive due to habitat loss, pollution, wild predators and dehydration, have been pushed further towards the edge due to the devastating 2019/20 bushfires, which scorched their habitat and spat river-clogging ashes into their streams.

The shy platypus lives in burrows, eats in the dark and dives into the water when people see it.

The shy platypus lives in burrows, eats in the dark and dives into the water when people see it.Credit:Doug Gimesy

Scientists urgently need to know exactly where platypuses are in the wild in order to save the best habitat and increase populations.

But finding the shy, mostly nocturnal creature has proven impossible in all of the myriad of waterways it could possibly live on. Until now.

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State-of-the-art DNA technology can identify microscopic traces of animals in water samples from the wild. Technological advancement since its inception six years ago has resulted in a slump in costs and opened up opportunities for scientists like Josh Griffiths, senior wildlife ecologist at research firm Cesar Australia, who leads a research partnership to track platypus in NSW and Victoria.

“Platypuses are just incredibly difficult to see and study in the wild,” he said. “We know the type of areas in general, but only on a large scale.”

Animals “secrete” DNA through their feces, skin, and hair as they move through the environment.

“It’s like what a detective would do on a crime scene, but we do the same thing with wildlife,” Mr. Griffiths. “It has completely revolutionized the way we can collect data on this species, to an extent that we have never had before. And that’s what these widespread species need. “

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