Who is killing platypuses in Australia?

[DIGEST: IFL Science, Washington Post, Guardian Australia, ABC News]

It might be one of the world’s saddest whodunits.

Someone in Australia is killing duck-billed platypuses—the rare, semi-aquatic creature that is the only mammal on earth to lay eggs—and dumping their bodies in Albury Botanic Gardens in New South Wales.

The first dead platypus was found by a gardener at Albury in March; the other two were found by visitors. Two of the carcasses had been decapitated with a sharp object.

“As far as we are concerned it’s not a fox, and as far as the vet is concerned it is not a fox,” Hazel Cook, of the local branch of the Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service, told Guardian Australia. “We would love to be proved wrong. We would love to think that a human would not do this sort of thing. But I don’t think we will be.”

The Humane Society of Australia is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever is responsible for what officials are calling an “appalling” and “brutal” act of cruelty.

“We thought at first that they might have been caught accidentally by someone with illegal nets in the river,” Cook said, “but then why take them to the gardens? Why not just throw the bodies in the river? And why take the heads? We still don’t know what they’ve done with the heads.”

The aquatic, carnivorous animals would not have been at the botanic gardens on their own, as the park does not have a water feature. Platypuses spend 30 percent more energy walking across land than swimming through water, so walking is not a preferred method of

transportation. Platypuses hunt underwater, scooping up larvae, bugs, shellfish and worms in their ducklike bill and storing it in cheek pouches to be eaten once they resurface. Cook is concerned the killings could have taken out a whole family.

Though the duck-billed platypus is native to eastern Australia, it’s rare and protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1974, which means killing one brings an AUS $11,000 fine or six months in prison.

Platypuses were once hunted for their thick, brown, waterproof pelts (several years ago a vintage platypus-fur rug was appraised at AUS$10,000 by Sotheby’s auction house), but whoever killed these platypuses did not harvest the fur.

Further perplexing to the National Park and Wildlife Service is that not only were these particular animals healthy, but unlike other aquatic animals like beaver and nutria, duck-billed platypuses cause no damage, so there would be no logical reason for someone to want to trap them.

“These are just gentle little fellas who do no harm,” Cook said. "To do something like that shows that [the killer or killers] wanted to be noticed, and probably if we didn't do something about it would they just keep on going."

Earlier in April, in fact, a young Wallaby was found decapitated and dumped near Thunder Point, a coastal reserve in Warranambool, Victoria.

Anyone with information about the platypus killings is asked to contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales.

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