Australia Geography: Fauna

The Australian landmass is one of the most ancient on earth. The sea has kept it cut off from other continents for more than 50 million years, and its various indigenous animals have experienced an unusually long, uninterrupted period of evolution in isolation.

Australia is blessed with a fascinating mix of native fauna, which ranges from the primitive to the highly evolved - some creatures are unique survivors from a previous age, while others have adapted so acutely to the natural environment that they can survive in areas which other animals would find uninhabitable.

Since the European colonization of Australia, 17 species of mammal have become extinct and at least 30 more are endangered. Many introduced non-native animals have been allowed to run wild, causing a great deal of damage to native species and to Australian vegetation. Introduced animals include the fox, cat, pig, goat, camel, donkey, water buffalo, horse, starling, blackbird, cane toad and the notorious rabbit. Foxes and cats kill small native mammals and birds, rabbits denude vast areas of land, pigs carry disease and introduced birds take over the habitat of the local species.

The platypus (Omithorhynchus anatinus) is certainly well equipped for its semi-aquatic lifestyle. It has a duck- like bill, which is actually quite soft, short legs, webbed feet and a short butthick, beaver-like tail. Adult males are about 50 cm long, not including the 10 to 13-cm tail, and weigh around two kg; the females are slightly smaller.

A platypus spends most of its time in the extensive burrows which it digs along the river banks; it spends the rest of its time in the water foraging for food with its electrosensitive bill or sunning itself in the open. Its diet is mainly small crustaceans, worms and tadpoles. The platypus is confined to eastern, mainland Australia and Tasmania.

The short-beaked echidna (or spiny anteater; Tachyglossus aculeatus) is a small monotreme which is covered on the back with long, sharp spines and on the underside with fur. When fully grown it weighs around 4.5 kg and measures around 45 cm long. The elongated, beak-like snout is around 7.5 cm long and it has a long, sticky tongue which it can whip out some 15 cm beyond the snout - perfect for catching ants and termites, which comprise the major portion of its diet. At the first sign of danger, the echidna rapidly buries its body in the dirt, leaving only its formidable spines exposed.

Short-beaked echidnas are found in a great range of habitats, from hot, dry deserts to altitudes of 1800 meters in the Alps.

Marsupials are mammals which raise their young inside a pouch, or marsupium. Marsupials are largely confined to Australia, and included in this group of around 120 species are some of the country's most distinctive and well-known animals - kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats and possums- as well as others less well-known, such as the numerous bandicoots, the predatory quoll and the now-extinct thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger).

Marsupial young are usually very tiny at birth and need to spend a good deal of time in the pouch before being sufficiently developed to live independently of their mothers.

Kangaroos are probably the most instantly recognizable Australian mammal and hardly need a description, although the name is applied to dozens of species. There are now greater numbers of kangaroos in Australia than there were when Europeans arrived, a result of the better availability of water and the creation of grasslands for sheep and cattle. Certain species, however, are threatened with extinction through habitat destruction and predation from feral cats and foxes.

About three million kangaroos are culled legally each year but many more are killed for sport or by those farmers who believe the cull is insufficient to protect their paddocks from overgrazing by the animals. Kangaroo meat has been exported for some time but it is only in recent years that it has started to appear on Australian menus.

The distinctive red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) is the largest and most widespread of the kangaroos. A fully grown male can be 2.4 meters long and up to two meters high. It's usually only the males that are brick-red; females are often a blue-grey color. They range over most of arid Australia.

The eastern grey kangaroo (M. giganteus) is about the same size as the red, and is found throughout the dry sclerophyll forests of south-eastern Australia, from Queensland to Tasmania. The western grey (M. fuliginosus) is very similar, although slightly darker in color, and is common in the southern regions of Western Australia and South Australia, central and western New South Wales and western Victoria. Mixed populations of eastern and western greys occur in Victoria and New South Wales but there have been no recordings of natural hybrids.

Wallabies come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most commonly seen are the red-necked (M. rufogriseus), agile (M. agilis) and the swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), all of which are about 1.7 meters long when fully grown.

The various rock-wallabies are small (around one meter long) and are confined to cliffs and rocky habitats around the country. One of the most widespread is the brush-tailed rock-wallaby (Petrogale peniclllata), which is found along the Great Dividing Range in eastern Australia.

There is an enormous range of possums (or phalangers) in Australia - they have adapted to all sorts of habitats, including that of the city, where you'll often find them in parks. Some large species are found living in suburban roofs and will eat garden plants and food scraps. Possums are also common visitors at camp sites in heavily treed country, and will often help themselves to any food left out.

Probably the most familiar of all possums is the common brushtail (or grey) possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), which occurs widely throughout the mainland and Tasmania. The sugar glider (Petaurus breinceps) has membranes between its front and rear legs, which when spread out are used for gliding from the tip of one tree to the base of the next, covering up to 100 meters in one swoop-quite a remarkable sight.

Australia's other instantly recognizable mammal is the much-loved koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). The name is an Aboriginal word meaning 'no water', which refers to the koala's alleged' ability to meet all its moisture requirements from gum leaves, although it does drink water from pools.

When fully grown a koala measures about 70 cm and weighs around 10 kg. Their most distinctive features are their tufted ears and hard, black nose. Koalas feed only on the leaves of certain types of eucalypt and are particularly sensitive to changes to their habitat. They are found along the east coast from around Townsville down to Melbourne, and have been reintroduced in South Australia, where they had previously been driven to extinction.

Wombats are slow, solid, powerfully built marsupials with broad heads and short, stumpy legs. These fairly placid and easily tamed creatures are legally killed by farmers, who object to the damage done by wombats digging large burrows and tunneling under fences.

Adult wombats are about one meter long and weigh up to 35 kg. Their strong front legs are excellent burrowing tools, and the rear legs are used for pushing the earth away. Their diet consists of grasses, roots and tree barks.

There are three species of wombat, the most prevalent being the common wombat (Vorribatus ursinus), which is distributed throughout the forested areas of south-eastern Australia. The other species are the rare and endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), and the southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), which is also vulnerable and lives inland of the Great Australian Bight.

Thedingo (Cam's familiaris dingo), is Australia's native dog. It's thought to have arrived in Australia around 6000 years ago, and was domesticated by Aboriginal people. It differs from the domestic dog in that it howls rather than barks and breeds only once a year (rather than twice), although the two can interbreed.

Dingoes prey on rabbits, rats and mice, although when other food is scarce they sometimes attack livestock (usually unattended sheep or calves), and for this reason are considered vermin by many farmers. Efforts to control dingo numbers have been largely unsuccessful.

Humpback Whale. Now a regular visitor to the east and west coasts of Australia, this massive marine mammal (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a joy to behold. It migrates northwards from feeding grounds in the polar seas to breed in subtropical waters in winter. Adult humpbacks range from 14 to 19 meters in length and can live for over 30 years.

Australia's birdlife is as beautiful as it is varied, with over 750 recorded species, many of them endemic.

The emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is a shaggy feathered bird that stands two meters high. The only bird larger than the emu is the African ostrich, also flightless. Emus are found across the country, but only in areas away from human habitation. After the female lays her six to 12 large, dark green eggs the male hatches them and raises the young.

The laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguinae) is common throughout coastal Australia, but particularly in the east and south-west of the country. The blue-winged kookaburra (D. leachii) is found in northern coastal woodlands. Kookaburras are the largest members of the kingfisher family. The kookaburra is heard as much as it is seen-you can't miss its loud, cackling laugh. Kookaburras can become quite tame and pay regular visits to friendly households, but only if the food is excellent.

The shy superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) is a ground-dwelling rainforest bird found in south-eastern Australia. The male has tail feathers which form a lyre shape when displayed to attract a mate. The similar Albert lyrebird (M. alberti) is found in the rainforests of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. Lyrebirds have a beautiful song and are also clever mimics.

Australian snakes are generally shy and avoid confrontations with humans. A few, however, are deadly. The most dangerous are the taipan and tiger snake, although death adders, copperheads, brown snakes and red-bellied black snakes should also be avoided. Tiger snakes will actually attack.

There are two types of crocodile in Australia: the extremely dangerous saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), or 'saltie' as it's known, and the less aggressive freshwater crocodile (C. johnstoni), or 'freshie'. It is important to be able to tell the difference between them, as both are prolific in northern Australia.

Salties are not confined to salt water. They inhabit estuaries, and following floods may be found many km from the coast. They may even be found in permanent fresh water more than 100 km inland. Salties, which can grow to seven meters, will attack and kill humans.

Freshies are smaller than salties - anything over four meters should be regarded as a saltie. Freshies are also more finely constructed and have much narrower snouts and smaller teeth. Freshies, though unlikely to seek human prey, have been known to bite, and children in particular should be kept away from them.

The redback (Latrodectus hasselti) is Australia's most notorious spider. It is generally glossy black with a red streak down its back. Woodheaps and garden sheds are favorite hang-outs, and its bite can be lethal. The funnel-web (Dipluridae family) is a large, aggressive ground-dwelling spider found mainly in New South Wales. Funnel-webs from around Sydney are particularly venomous; their bite can be fatal.