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Desperate Rescue Mission To Save Platypuses From Dried-Up Ponds

Seven platypuses living in a parched nature reserve have been saved by wildlife conservationists, as their home dried up amid drought and extreme heat.

The monotremes, living at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve south of Canberra, have been struggling in the extreme weather. The ponds they call home had been drying up, and conservationists had feared the waterholes were just weeks away from disappearing completely.

They're just some of the nation's platypus population which is feared to be on the "brink of extinction", according to a startling new study from the University of NSW.

Just after Christmas, a team of experts from ACT Parks and Conservation, the Taronga Conservation Society Australia and the UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Ecosystem Science sprung into action, aiming to relocate the Tidbinbilla platypuses before the water totally dried up.

The dry wetland area the platypuses were rescued from. Image: Taronga Conservation Society

“There was a small window between Christmas and New Year that was safe to access Tidbinbilla and try to rescue platypus before they had no water left,” said Andrew Elphinstone, Taronga’s manager of conservation and recovery programs.

"Without rescue the platypus would have perished in the conditions."

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The team was worried that the dropping water levels and quality, combined with catastrophic fire conditions and hot days across the region, would lead to the animals having very little food to eat.

So on December 27, the experts worked to trap the platypuses, before transporting them to Sydney's Taronga Zoo for recovery.

One of the platypuses after being rescued. Image: Taronga Conservation Society

“These animals had nowhere to go and would have almost certainly perished if we didn’t act,” said Dr Sarah May, from ACT Parks and Conservation.

Five females and two males were captured and taken to Sydney. They're being looked after, with researchers sharing images of the little animals on lab tables under anaesthetic.

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The seven platypuses will be returned home when conditions improve -- but May said that "given how extreme conditions are currently, I fully expect that it will be many months before we see enough rain to replenish this wetland and warrant their return."

Experts trapping the platypuses. Image: Taronga Conservation Society

A recent study from UNSW and Taronga estimated platypus numbers nationwide had halved since European colonisation, due to a combination of habitat destruction, climate conditions and land clearing.

“There is an urgent need for a national risk assessment for the platypus to assess its conservation status, evaluate risks and impacts, and prioritise management in order to minimise any risk of extinction,” said the study's lead author Dr Gilad Bino, a researcher at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science.

There are fears the numbers could drop even further, and rescue missions like this one could become more frequent, due to changing climates and environmental damage.

One of the platypuses under anaesthetic. Image: Taronga Conservation Society

"Platypus waterholes in some New South Wales rivers are drying up and stranding animals, as a result of the drought exacerbated by river management," said Professor Richard Kingsford, the director of UNSW's Centre for Ecosystem Science.

"Our research has indicated that these incidences will likely increase in an increasingly dry future."