Australia has more unique animals than any other area in the world. There are over 1,100 different kinds of animals, including 700 species of birds. Many of these animals are native only to Australia. Of the native Australian animals, there are no members of the cat family (lions or leopards), no hoofed animals (cattle or horses) and no primates (monkeys or apes).
Long ago, the continents were part of one huge land mass. When the land bridge between the continents sank, Australia became isolated from the rest of the world. This isolation prevented any further influence or migration of animals to and from this island continent. It allowed some lower forms of life to flourish because of the relative lack of competition from more adaptable species. Australian animals have also adapted to the variation in the continent’s climate, which ranges from arid to tropical. For example, some animals move about only at night and live in burrows during the day in order to conserve water. Many require very little water, such as the koala whose name actually means “no drink.”
Monotremes, or egg-laying mammals, are the most primitive group of mammals. They are found exclusively in Australia and are most closely related to reptiles. Upon hatching from eggs, the young are fed with milk through pores in the mother’s skin. The adult males have spurs on their ankles which are connected to mildly poisonous glands. This group has only two members in the world; the echidna and the platypus.
The echidna, or spiny anteater, is about fifteen inches long and resembles a hedgehog in size and appearance. Its flattened body is covered with coarse hair and sharp spines which are used for protection. Its mouth and nose form a long, slender snout, and it uses its long sticky tongue to collect ants and termites. Its strong claws are able to tear into the huge rock-like nests of termites. The echidna lives mainly in open scrubby or rocky country. It rests underground during the day and comes out at night to feed. Usually the female lays only one leathery-shelled egg. It is incubated for about ten days in a pouch-like fold of skin which develops only at breeding time. After hatching, the young echidna stays in the pouch for about seven weeks and is fed with milk from special pores in the mother’s skin.
The platypus is the only other Monotreme and is unusual in that it has the characteristics of several different types of animals. It has velvety brownish fur like that of an otter above its body and grayish fur below, a soft rubbery bill and webbed feet with claws. It lives in eastern Australia where it makes its home in the rivers and creeks by burrowing its nest into the banks. This area of Australia has adequate rainfall to prevent the rivers from drying up and allows the platypus to hunt for crayfish, worms and small fish underwater. During breeding season, the female digs a twenty foot long burrow and builds a nest at the end. She lays one to three eggs and incubates them for about ten days by curling her body around them. After hatching, the young are fed with milk through pores in her skin.
Nearly half of Australian mammals are marsupials, or pouched mammals. Their young are very immature at birth and must crawl into the mother’s pouch (or marsupium) which is formed by a fold of skin enclosing the mammary glands. There they nurse, grow and develop until they are able to live on their own.
The kangaroo family, the best known of the marsupials, has forty eight species, of all different sizes. They have large powerful hind legs and small front legs. They have no first toe, small second and third toes joined by skin, a large fourth toe, and a smaller fifth toe. Their small deer-like head has long ears that stand straight up. Their long, thick, powerful tail is used for balance and support.
Grey and Red Kangaroos are the largest, growing to more than six feet and weighing over 200 pounds. At birth, however, they weigh only 1/35 of an ounce and are less than one inch long, about the size of a large lima bean. The immature young, called a “joey,” must immediately climb through its mother’s fur into her forward facing pouch where it stays for over four months. It is weaned at one year and considered mature at two years. Red Kangaroos live in the grass plains of inland Australia, and Greys live in the scrub and woodland of eastern Australia. They graze on herbs and grasses mostly in the late afternoon and at night when it is cooler. These large kangaroos are capable of leaping up to twenty-five feet in one hop and reaching speeds of up to thirty miles per hour. If attacked and cornered, they are able to deliver a savage kick from their heavily clawed hind legs.
Wallabies are smaller kangaroos, from two to three and a half feet tall, and often brightly colored. Wallaroos are a larger species with thick grey fur and live in the mountain ranges. The kangaroo appears on the Australian coat of arms.
Other placentals introduced
into Australia include wild horses called brumbies, the Afghan camel
(once used for ht transportation), rabbits, deer and foxes. These animals
have caused tremendous damage by destroying the habitat and grazing areas
of the native animals. Sheep and cattle, though an important industry
in Australia, have had much the same effect.
Australia also has many unusual birds. The emu is the largest bird in Australia, averaging seven feet high and is second in size only to the ostrich. It has thick brownish-black or dull grey plumage, small wings and long sturdy legs. It is flightless but can run up to forty miles per hour as well as swim. Its call is a long, deep “boom... boom...boom.” This bird ears fruit, herbs and roots. Its blue-green eggs, about the size of a softball, are hatched by the male, and the chicks have black and white feathers arranged in parallel stripes. The emu is the national bird and appears on the coat of arms of Australia.
The cassowary, a relative of the emu, stands about five feet high and has sharp claws. It is a shy, flightless bird which feeds mainly in the evening on roots and berries and lives in the dense rain forests. Its brightly colored feathers are dark blue, black and red and have been used by natives as currency.
The kookaburra is a giant kingfisher about the size of a seagull. It has a relatively large head, a strong beak and feathers which are brownish-grey with flecks of blue on the wings. The kookaburra is often called the “laughing jackass.” Jack, or Jacko because of its donkey-like laugh. It lives in hollow trees in the forests and eats insects, frogs, worms, fish and other small mammals and birds. This popular bird kills snakes by taking them to the top of a tree and dropping them over and over until they are dead.
The handsome lyrebird has a brown body and curved tail feathers which are patterned with silver, brown and black and spread like a peacock when attracting a female. It is an accomplished singer and mimic and also has a unique dance used in mating. The lyrebird is found only in Australia and rarely flies.
There are over sixty species
of brilliantly colored parrots which live primarily in the tropical regions
of the country. The noisy galahs are among the most common. The colorful
cockatoo has a beautiful crested head.
It rests in holes in trees and cliffs and uses its powerful beak to dig out roots and seeds. There are many types of budgerigars which are known in the United Slates as “lovebirds” or parakeets. They often fly in enormous flocks.
The boobook is the best known of Australia’s twelve kinds of owls and is recognized by its cry “mopoke,” a common night call in the bush. The boobook lives in the thick foliage during the day and seeks food during the night. It lays three to four eggs, usually in a hollow tree.
The brolga, Australia’s only true crane, is known for its complicated dance movements which have been copied by the Aboriginals during their corroborees. The brolga feeds on grass, roots, insects, frogs and small reptiles. It lays two eggs in a nest made of grasses and reeds, situated in a well-protected area of a swamp.
The black swan is native only to Australia and lives in lakes and rivers where it feeds on aquatic plants by using its long neck to pull them from the bottom. This bird is completely black except for a white area on the wings which appears in flight and a scarlet beak and feet. It has a wingspan of six feet and is recognized by its haunting cry as it flies.
The pelican, one of Australia’s largest birds, may be found all over the country. On land it walks with an awkward waddle, but in water it swims comfortably and can scoop fish into its large pouch-like beak. Pelicans are social birds; they nest in colonies in swamps or on islands off the coast.
The fairy penguin is the most common type of penguin seen on the coast and many islands of Australia. It is most at home in the water and is remarkably swift in diving and swimming after food. When this small penguin comes ashore to nest and mate, it walks with an amusing waddle. On Philip Island in Victoria, the entertaining fairy penguins perform a nightly parade as they hurry to feed their babies waiting in shoreline nests.
Australia also has many types of reptiles including crocodiles, alligators, giant turtles, snakes and lizards. The monitors, a type of lizard, are all called goannas. They range in size from eighteen inches to fifteen feet and live among Australia’s rocks and stumps. They have short legs with sharp claws and have an amusing waddle when they walk. The frilled lizard is recognized by the unusual leaf-like frill it ejects when angry.
The best known Australian snakes are the carpet snake or common python, patterned with black and brown and the diamond back’s greenish-black with yellow diamond-shaped markings. Both are harmless though Australia is home to several species of poisonous snakes including death-adders, copperheads, brown snakes, tiger snakes and red-bellied black snakes. The most deadly is the taipan, which lives in the northern part of the country. It is slender and may grow to ten feet long.
There are thousands of species of insects in Australia, the most dangerous of which are the small redback, related to the American black widow, and the funnel web. An interesting insect is the large termite found in the north of the country. It is abou& the size of a big cockroach, lives in colonies and builds rocklike nests up to twenty feet high.
The Great Barrier Reef and ocean which surrounds Australia provide a perfect home for all kinds of sea life, including tropical fish, sea anemones and jellyfish. The beautiful coral structures are formed from calcium carbonate extracted by marine animals called polyps from the seawater. They build it around themselves to make a stony tube in which to live. The tubes are cemented together by more limestone as the colony grows forming a permanent structure. The various shapes of the colonies are determined by the species of polyps as well as by the water conditions. Sharks are also found all around Australia’s coastline.
The lungfish, also called the Burnett Salmon, is a very primitive form of fish and is found in no other place except South Africa. It grows to about three feet in length and has a lung which can breathe air.
The Australian government protects some animals such as koalas, most species of kangaroos and kookaburras. Animals such as the dingo and rabbit have done great damage to the habitat and native animal population and the government encourages the control of these pests.