Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The platypus is headed for extinction, warn Australian scientists
Australia's beloved and bizarre egg-laying mammal could start vanishing in coming years if current trends continue.
- Platypuses are nocturnal, semiaquatic animals that are endemic to Australia and Tasmania.
- A new study suggests that the species could lose half its population over the next 50 years, due mainly to drought, human development and climate change.
- In 2019, the United Nations reported that some 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.
The platypus is at greater risk of extinction than previously thought, suggests a new study published in the February issue of Biological Conservation.
The strange egg-laying, river-dwelling mammal is currently listed as endangered in South Australia, and as "Near Threatened" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. But the researchers behind a new analysis of platypus populations say there's strong evidence that platypus populations are declining in Australia and Tasmania, the only two countries where the secretive animals exist in the wild.
The Australia-based researchers wrote:
"[The platypus faces] potentially devastating combination of threats, including water-resource development, land clearing, climate change, and increasingly severe periods of drought."
Lead study author Dr. Gilad Bino, a researcher at the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science, called for urgent conservation action and government funding to protect the species.
"There is an urgent need for a national risk assessment for the platypus to assess its conservation status, evaluate risks and impacts, and prioritize management in order to minimize any risk of extinction," Bino told Science Daily.
The study estimated the future decline of platypus populations by considering current rates of climate change, drought, and land and water development. Under this model, the results showed that the platypus population is likely to drop 47 percent over the next 50 years. Drought is expected to be a particularly deadly threat to the species.
Heinrich Harder/Public Domain
Australia has recently suffered some of its worst droughts on record. The researchers suggested that even more extreme droughts are likely to occur in the future, considering that the changing climate will bring even hotter temperatures. Droughts can destroy platypuses' burrows, which the animal usually constructs by digging into the riverbank with its claws. When droughts dry up these hiding spots, platypuses are forced to move into new areas where they risk becoming prey to predators like foxes, dogs, and cats.
Droughts can also increase the likelihood of deadly bushfires. The current bushfire crisis in Australia wasn't mentioned in the recent study, but experts estimate that some 1 billion animals have been killed so far in the fires. As for how many platypuses died:
"The short answer is that we simply don't know," Josh Griffiths, an ecologist with the environmental consulting firm Cesar Australia, told Atlas Obscura in an article published January 24, 2020. "The scale of the fire we've got at the moment is unprecedented. [...] It's one more nail in their coffin."
How to save the platypus
Human development, especially that which involves altering rivers, is another major threat to the platypus. Study co-author Richard Kingsford, director of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, noted that many platypuses live in areas of Australia currently undergoing development.
"These include dams that stop their movements, agriculture which can destroy their burrows, fishing gear and yabby traps which can drown them and invasive foxes which can kill them," Kingsford told Science Daily.
The researchers offered several suggestions for how to protect the platypus:
- Ban enclosed cray-fish traps
- Prevent land clearing in key areas
- Build "platypus-ways" that provide safe passage from ferals predators
- Citizens can report platypus sightings via the app platypusSpot
In 2019, the United Nations reported that some 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction, with climate change being a major reason. It's an unprecedented threat to biodiversity, as Patricia Miloslavich, a senior professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Universidad Simón Bolívar, told CBS News.
"It's true there have been extinctions in the past, that nature has taken its course, it's just that these have been processes that have taken millions of years and nature has had the time to adapt and provide a response," she said. "We are not giving nature a time to provide a response."
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
View this post on Instagram
During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
A post shared by LKCNHM (@lkcnhm) on
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work