“In retrospect, it involved a world of darkness in which the water was definitely very, very cold, our clothes constantly dripping and soft mud clinging and oozing at every step…”
This is how David Fleay vividly recalled his “platypusing foray” with my great-great-uncle, Cecil Milne, in a letter to The Age published on the 20th of June 1989. These forays, in the early years of the 1940s, were in the waters of the Watts and Graceburn Rivers and Lake Yumbunga, not far from where Healesville Sanctuary is today. In those days, Fleay was the director of what was then known as Badger Creek Sanctuary, Healesville.
The subject of the great naturalist’s letter on this occasion was the capture of a few pairs of platypus to be translocated to streams within Flinders Chase NP on Kangaroo Island in 1940 at the request of the South Australian Government.
But it was a few years later, in November 1943, that Fleay and his team were to have their greatest success. As the world beyond Healesville churned through the daily horrors of intensifying war in the Pacific, Badger Creek became home to the first platypus bred and hatched in captivity.
The enormity of this achievement is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that it remained the only successful captive breeding of a platypus until 1998.
The single female puggle, Corrie, was named after the lands of the local Wurundjeri people, Coranderrk, many of whom had been instrumental in Fleay and uncle Cecil’s efforts to maintain the platypusary at Badger Creek during the lean wartime years. For keeping up the supply of food to, “the gluttonous little creatures”, Fleay singled out one Wurundjeri woman for particular praise:
“Mrs. Jemima Dunolly, too, the last of the old Aboriginal people at Coranderrk, supplied us consistently in all weathers for years with the important platypus food items until practically the day of her death in early January 1944, at the reputed age of 102.” – David Fleay, The Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 61 – No. 1. May 4th, 1944
Their success is all the more impressive when we consider that it occurred during WWII when supplies and funding for anything not directly related to the war effort were surely in short supply. Indeed, Fleay describes, “days when even our butcher’s order had to be dropped in favour of using up ancient horses” - a phrase that’s destined to come back to me next time I’m grousing about how tough it is getting research funding these days.
David Fleay’s account of this historic first in The Victorian Naturalist is gripping reading and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A PDF, of his full article, with photographs, is available HERE. It’s earthy field biology writing at its best and his warmth and affection for the creatures he once described as, “the most wonderful of all living mammals”, positively beam from the page.
The story of Coranderrk’s (and Melbourne’s) platypodes warms me also. I only recently learned of the role that uncle Cec played as Fleay’s deputy at Badger Creek Sanctuary, but I’m tickled to have any sort of connection with such significant events in Australian wildlife research. My own interest in the platypus has been rekindled since I started living on Koonung Creek in Box Hill. There is some great parkland and some good stretches of creek that look promising. I’m out most evenings looking for platypus here; not a sausage so far but I’m optimistic.
There are platypus in Mullum Mullum Creek around 8 kilometres to the east and there have been recent sightings in Ruffey Creek just a few kilometres to the north. In just the last few weeks there have been platypus photographed in the Yarra River at Kew and even as far downstream as Abbottsford.
I know about these sightings thanks to a mob who are continuing the great work of people like David Fleay and Cecil Milne. Supported by Melbourne Water’s Urban Platypus Program, a team called platypusSPOT are conducting research into platypus using the waterways in and around Melbourne. If you use social media, you can follow their work on Twitter and Facebook. Smartphone users who are out spotting wildlife can also download their free platypusSPOT app and make their own citizen science contribution by letting them know details of their own platypus sightings. It turns out that platypodes are turning up in all sorts of urban waterways where they might be least expected. So keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re down by a creek or river in the ‘burbs.
No doubt the platypusSpot team’s experience of ‘platypusing forays’ are similar to the great men and women from the early days of Badger Creek: cold, wet, dark. Such is the nature of field biology sometimes. Maybe there are a few more plastic bags and abandoned shopping trolleys to deal with, along with the oozing mud and dripping clothes.
The platypodes have certainly got a few more challenges to face with poorer water quality and myriad choking hazards resulting from our fondness for discarding circular plastic rubbish: 6-pack holders and promotional ‘cause’ wristbands among countless other examples. Discarded or illegal fish and yabby traps add an ever-present risk of drowning to the urban platypode’s lot.
Life for Melbourne’s platypodes is not all meal worms and caddis fly larvae like the Coranderrk duckbills of yore, but I hope they will endure. We all owe thanks to Melbourne Water and the team at platypusSPOT and I hope that they can keep up their urban research program and their work maintaining healthy waterways for Melbourne in perpetuity.