27 Nov Bloop the White Platypus
By Dr Geoff Hughes, UNE Discovery
Throughout human history, the unusual has always caught the attention and captured the imagination. This has been especially true of strangely coloured animals. Black panthers, leopards or jaguars with a genetic trait called melanism, appear often in stories when their spotted kin are not as common. Albinos, animals that completely lack the dark pigment called melanin, are also eye-catching and have sparked many tales throughout history. Most mammals are some variation of brown, so if a rare individual stands out, it gets noticed.
Of course, for a small prey animal, being noticeable is usually a bad thing. A bright white animal living in a dark environment is easier for a predator to spot. Strangely, though, a bright white platypus is living and apparently thriving in a stream in the Northern Tablelands! While platypuses are usually brown, to better blend in with the muddy creeks where they live, this white platypus has been seen continuously by UNE researchers for the last two years, and they named it “Bloop”!
Bloop was identified (and named) by UNE researcher, Lou Streeting, and some volunteers, who were seeking to conserve the endangered western saw-shelled turtle. These turtles and the platypus share streams around the Northern Tablelands, and sometimes researchers catch platypuses in their turtle traps. Bloop has never been caught this way, but has been seen and photographed several times from the shore.
Lou describes Bloop as “leucistic”, not albino. A true albino has no melanin in its skin or fur, and would be pure white with red eyes. While Bloop’s fur is white as snow, it has a black bill, black feet, and possibly dark eyes, although it’s hard to be certain from the photographs. Albino platypuses have been described in the past, and would have pink beaks, feet, and eyes. While albinism refers to the complete lack of melanin—the natural pigment that gives skin, feathers, hair, and eyes their color—leucism involves a partial loss of pigmentation.
Lou has been at the forefront of UNE’s turtle conservation efforts since 2018, and was the lead author on the paper that described Bloop’s discovery. She says that it’s hard to tell whether Bloop is male or female. Platypuses are difficult to tell apart from a distance; males are larger than females when fully grown, but a young male could be the same size as an adult female. Males have the infamous venomous spurs on their ankles, but these spurs are hard to see when the platypus is in the water.
Bloop’s exact location is protected, for fear of poachers; the unusual and the exotic are always targets for those that don’t value living things for their own sake. Platypuses can live for 20 years or more in the wild. Bloop’s life may be harder with its bright white fur, but we can all wish it a long and prosperous future in the Northern Tablelands.