Perth Platypuses

Under an agreement between the State Gardens Board of Western Australia and the Victorian Fisheries and Game Department, Mr David Fleay captured two platypuses in the Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria and quickly sent them to Perth in an Australian National Airways plane.

The platypuses. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

The male and female platypuses were about 18 months old and spent the nine hour flight in separate grass lined boxes that included deep trays of water. They were stowed at the back in the coolest part of the aircraft and were cared for “according to special instructions.” Thought to be the first platypuses to enter Western Australia, it was the hope of the State Gardens Board that they would be able to breed them.

Despite the agreement being in place for some time, the State Gardens Board was surprised by their unexpected arrival at Guildford airport on 5 March 1951. It was too late to transport them to their new home so Chairman, Mr H. Smith, went against Mr Fleay’s recommendation to release them immediately and instead arranged for them to spend the night at his home in Perth.

There they were placed in a large tub of water, which was surrounded by earth and dead grass, and were fed with worms.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 6 March 1951; Page 1; Two Platypuses Come By Plane for National Park

On the following day the platypuses were taken to their new home at John Forrest National Park. A 2,000,000 gallon dam had been constructed on Mahogany Creek and one end was wired in order to prevent them from swimming upstream. It was thought there would be enough natural food such as grubs, beetles, gilgies and worms however, until they were settled, they would be hand fed worms and the occasional hard boiled egg.

Superintendent Mr G. Edwards with the male platypus at John Forrest National Park. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

Once released from the crates the platypuses “quickly scampered over the ground separating them from the water and disappeared…” The female was first and was quickly followed by the male. The only sign of them in the water were lines of bubbles on the surface which showed they were swimming upstream.

Four days later it was reported that the platypuses had not been seen since 8 March. Regardless, no one from the State Gardens Board was worried and it was noted that they were most likely hiding in their new home. Just to be sure, the Superintendent, Mr Edwards, spent hours at the dam keeping watch but could not see them. Despite reassurances he began to worry and was feeling the weight of the responsibility of caring for two animals he had no knowledge of.

He was also concerned that they may have been attacked. There was no fence or other means of protection surrounding the dam apart from reeds, bushes and tall scrub. On land they were at risk of becoming prey to cats or foxes. Nevertheless, Mr Edwards considered them “pretty smart” and quick swimmers in the water. These comments indicated that he was hopeful they would escape from predators.

On Thursday morning [8 March] the platypuses were playing or looking for food on the edge of the water, Mr. Edwards said, but he saw them from a distance and did not interfere.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 10 March 1951; Page 4; Platypuses Lost Or In Hiding At New Home

His early worries were unfounded as on 11 April 1951 the Managing Secretary of the State Gardens Board sent a letter to Mr Fleay enclosing a cheque for payment of expenses. An update on the platypuses’ welfare was provided. It was stated that in the evenings Mr Edwards sat by the banks of the creek where “certain burrows have been noted” and watched the platypuses swimming in the water.

They appear to dive to the bottom and catch food and come up to the surface and eat it whilst on the surface. They seem to be in great condition and we are very hopeful that the experiment will be a success.

Letter from the Managing Secretary of the State Gardens Board dated 11 April 1951. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

Newspapers struggled to provide regular updates for a curious public. When questioned by a reporter in May, the Secretary, Mr W. Hobson, advised that it had been weeks since the platypuses were seen. The State Gardens Board however maintained their positivity. The platypuses were nocturnal animals and were only active at night when no one was around. Inquiring visitors at John Forrest National Park were shown the dam but were told that it was unlikely they would see them in daylight.

For over a year the platypuses remained absent from the news. Finally, in early June 1952, The West Australian declared that they had vanished.

There had been no definite sightings of them since winter in 1951. Were they dead in their burrows? Or was it simply the case that their natural timidity meant that they would be hidden more often than not. Park officials remained confident they would not have left the dam and stated, “They could still be alive.”

Where the newspaper reports end, a file at the State Records Office of Western Australia provides a little more information.

In early 1956 the Chief Warden of Fauna at the Fisheries Department in Perth had received notifications of numerous sightings of platypuses swimming near the Kent Street Weir in the Canning River. He sought to clarify whether platypuses had been released in the area and was told by the State Gardens Board that they had not.

In their response they wrote that platypuses were released in 1951 in John Forrest National Park and that, apart from observing “certain scratchings and markings in the bank of the dam towards the end of summer“, there had been no sightings of them since.

June 1958 saw renewed interest in the platypuses. The bank of the Mahogany Creek dam was disappearing and the Superintendent (now Mr Walter De Atta) was positive it was due to the platypuses scratching at it with their bills and feet.

Superintendent Walter De Atta at the Mahogany Creek dam in 1958. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

He was interviewed by The West Australian and stated, “We have not seen the animals for a year – but we often see the scratches that they make in gravel near a burrow in the dam bank.

The Sunday Times likewise picked up the story. Jack Jones visited the Park accompanied by Mr Athol Douglas, a naturalist from the Western Australian Museum. Mr Douglas was convinced they were still at Mahogany Creek and confirmed that he had seen them for himself in 1955. As the reporter and the naturalist explored the surroundings, evidence of platypuses was noted.

Nearby, cutting in from the side of the creek bank near the surface of the water was a burrow that could be easily distinguished from the erosion we had found earlier. … Not far away we found the fresh marks of the webbed foot of the platypus in several places – probably from the night before.

The Sunday Times article dated 29 June 1958. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

Mr Douglas and Mr De Atta expressed a desire to trap and photograph the platypuses however any plans they had were quickly stopped by the Chairman of the State Gardens Board. Having seen the newspaper article, a phone call was made to Mr De Atta and he was told in no uncertain terms that “…Mr Douglas is not to be permitted to trap any platypus without prior approval from this office.

On 20 August 1961, ten years after the platypuses were released, the Fauna Warden, Mr N. McLaughlan, was wading through a lake on the upper part of the Brockman River when he saw something swimming towards him. At first he thought it was a water rat but as it came closer “it proved quite unquestionably to be a platypus.” Staying still, the platypus came within three feet of Mr McLaughlan however some slight movement on his part resulted in it diving out of sight.

There is absolutely no possibility of a mistaken identity here. I had the platypus under observation for almost three minutes, firstly with the aid of binoculars and later when it was close enough to touch.

Mr N. McLaughlan’s letter dated 21 August 1961. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

Concerned about the platypus’s welfare he suggested, “…that the specific place of sighting should not be released as it is not desirable that this animal should be disturbed by over zealous naturalists.

It was the last credible sighting of a platypus in the records.

Questions as to why the platypuses were eagerly sought by the State Gardens Board cannot be adequately answered. Were they hoping to generate a new means of attracting tourists? Or, was there a desire to introduce an Australian animal to the Park which does not naturally exist in the Western Australian environment? Documents suggest that the State Gardens Board’s plans with respect to the platypuses was minimal. Aside from providing them with an adequate place to live, the rest of the process was considered an experiment.

This would be purely an experiment in the hope that the Platypus might succeed in becoming acclimatised.

Letter from the Managing Secretary of the State Gardens Board dated 2 September 1948. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

Platypuses are mostly nocturnal creatures so it was unlikely that tourism was the only factor. While it was decided to “turn them loose” in Mahogany Creek it seems that it was not done simply so they could exist there. The hope from the start was that they would breed and that their offspring could be sent to other places. Breeding platypuses however was known to be difficult. Perhaps officials in the State Gardens Board also had a desire to achieve notability by succeeding where others had not.

If it were successful it would be a remarkable achievement in the realms of zoology in Australia.

Letter from the Managing Secretary of the State Gardens Board dated 2 September 1948. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1).

Despite the State Gardens Board’s best (and perhaps unwise) intentions, the experiment proved to be a complete failure. What actually happened to the platypuses remains a mystery.

A platypus has a lifespan of approximately 20 years. If the original pair released in 1951 survived for that long they would have been in the area up until about 1971. Unless that pair and their offspring continued to breed, it seems unlikely that platypuses are still living in John Forrest National Park.

Part of Mahogany Creek where the platypuses were released.

Sources:

  • Platypus image courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; Item 04: [Platypus], 1810 / by J.W. Lewin; Call Number: ML 1364.
  • State Records Office of Western Australia; AU WA A951 – National Parks Board; AU WA A950 – State Gardens Board; Introduction of Australian fauna into National Park. Platypus.; AU WA S4151- cons1068 1942/0742 V1.
  • 1951 ‘Attempt to Breed Platypus in W.A.’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 6 March, p. 5. , viewed 25 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article206383774
  • 1951 ‘Two Platypuses Come By Plane For National Park’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 6 March, p. 1. , viewed 25 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48186653
  • 1951 ‘PLATYPUS IN NEW HOME’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 7 March, p. 3. , viewed 25 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48186900
  • 1951 ‘Platypuses’ Adventures End At National Park’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 7 March, p. 3. , viewed 25 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48186894
  • 1951 ‘LIFE STORY OF PLATYPUS; METHOD OF FEEDING YOUNG’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 9 March, p. 2. , viewed 25 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48187139
  • 1951 ‘Platypuses Lost Or In Hiding At New Home’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 10 March, p. 4. , viewed 25 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48187363
  • 1951 ‘PLATYPUSES HIDING’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 30 May, p. 2. , viewed 26 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48198948
  • 1952 ‘Platypuses Vanish At National Park’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 4 June, p. 9. , viewed 26 Jan 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article49034838

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