Australia has been isolated for millions of years, floating alone in the Great Southern Ocean since the breakup of Gondwanaland. It carried off with it some strange life forms that were protected here and so survived when they died off on other continents. Australia has the only surviving Monotremes or egg laying mammals with platypus in our East Coast rivers and streams and Echidnas wandering around from coast to coast. Australia also has the greatest diversity of Marsupials or pouched mammals in the world. There are placentals here too: bats and rodents were here long before humans but the most of the niches were filled by marsupials.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
The largest group of Marsupials are the herbivores known as Macropods (big feet). Most people have heard of kangaroos but there are also numerous other smaller species. On my land there are seven kinds of macropods: grey kangaroos, wallaroos, rock wallabies, red necked wallabies, pretty face wallabies, pademelons and bettongs. All have pouches and long hind legs and hop wherever they go but they vary greatly in size, habitat and food preferences. In the trees there are koalas, possums and gliders, filling the roles that squirrels fill on other continents. And on the ground, in some parts of the country, wombats dig burrows like rabbits.
My favourite marsupials are the Dasyuridae, the family of carnivorous marsupials that filled the roles of the cats, dogs and bears. The largest were the Tasmanian Tiger and the Tasmanian Devil, once widespread across the continent and then restricted to Tasmania. The Tassie Tiger is now officially considered extinct but I hope they still exist somewhere in the wilds of the Apple Island. Devils are hanging on though plagued by disease problems. On the mainland a few lucky people have seen the spotted marsupial cat’ or Quoll, which still stalks small animals in the forests. There are strange arboreal carnivores in the trees called Brush Tailed Phascogales and on the ground there are a variety of predatory marsupial mice’: planigales, antechinus, sminthopsids, and others. Although they superficially resemble mice, they have pouches and they are fierce hunters for their size.
The last group of Marsupials I will discuss are the bandicoots and bilbies. Bandicoots are also rather rat-like but their hips are fused so they hop rather than run. Their cousins, the bilbies, were once widespread in the desert regions but are now endangered because of the habitat destruction by rabbits and predation by introduced foxes and feral cats. In Australia many conservation-minded folk are teaching children about the Easter Bilby instead of the Easter Bunny. Rabbits are pests here and it would be much better if children had a native animal to think about when Easter comes around.
As well as mammals, Australia has a variety of unique bird, reptile, frog and fish species. There are over three hundred species of birds recorded in Australia, from the iconic Kookaburra to the beautiful parrots and honeyeaters. There are two groups of birds missing here: there are no Woodpeckers or Hummingbirds. Woodpeckers would break their beaks on the hard eucalyptus trees and the Hummingbird niche is filled by the Honeyeaters (Family Meliphagidae). My favourite birds are the parrots. From the well known Sulfur Crested Cockatoo to the giant Black Cockatoos to the King Parrots, rosellas, lorikeets and budgerigars, they are brightly coloured, social and noisy birds that bring life and colour to forests, grasslands and deserts.
Australia is also known for its venomous snakes but there are a lot of other kinds of reptiles too: tree snakes and pythons, goannas and other lizards, geckos and crocodiles, both salties and freshwater species. There are no salamanders here but the Amphibians are well represented by the frogs. My favourites are the big green tree frogs which live in my downpipes and use them like didgeridoos when it rains. The noise is deafening!
And those are just the vertebrates. Australia is also home to millions of invertebrate species which feed and sometimes plague the vertebrates. Ants, wasps and bees are particularly diverse but we also have beautiful butterflies and moths, way too many kinds of flies and a bewildering variety of beetles. There are giant stick insects and praying mantids and singing cicadas in the summertime. There are grasshoppers and locusts in the grasslands; mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies in the creeks. There are also spiders, scorpions, pseudoscorpions, millipedes and centipedes. In the summer bright gold or green or brown Christmas beetles are everywhere and every pool of water has a bright velvet-red or blue dragonflies patrolling their territories overhead . This place is an invertebrate zoologist’s delight, even if it does scare off a lot of New Zealanders.
Koalas, platypus and kangaroos are not the only weird wildlife in Australia. The place is full of strange and wonderful animals. If you visit Australia, be sure to go to some of our National Parks and wildlife refuges, keep an eye out for our colourful birds and make a donation to conservation groups to preserve what we have.