A tourists guide to Australian wildlife – Part 1 Mammals
Table of Contents
Australia is home to a wealth of wildlife, much of which is unique to this diverse continent and ranges from the cute and cuddly to the downright bizarre. Home to 21 of the 25 most venomous snakes in the world, spiders that would sooner kill you than look at you, numerous sharks, lethal jellyfish, stone fish and saltwater crocodiles, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything in Australia is out to get you. And don’t even get me started on the ‘drop bears’!
Indeed, when we decided to make the move from the UK, Dan and Ben did their research and were convinced that they weren’t going to last a day. Their UK classmates actually presented each of them with a beautiful compilation of farewell pictures and messages, most predicting their untimely and gruesome deaths at the hands of Australia’s flora and fauna, illustrated in graphic detail! I recall that the first stop when we arrived at Brisbane airport was the bathroom, but the boys weren’t chancing a sit down until they’d first checked for red back spiders under the toilet seat!
Fortunately (and quite to the surprise of Dan and Ben), we have survived thus far with the family even venturing into the ocean without too many anxieties about encountering Jaws. We’ve come to love the animals Australia has introduced us, with Sam ranking feeding the kangaroos at Australia zoo amongst his favourite past times.
With the total number of species calling Australia ‘home’ running into the thousands, it would be impossible to write about them all, but here is our guide to some of our favourite characters and where to find them.
A large number of Australia’s best loved animals belong to the mammalian family, marsupials, referring to the pouch in which they raise their young. Unlike other mammals which are born fully developed after a long gestational period, the marsupial placenta only functions for around 1 month. Marsupial infants are born under-developed, ranging in size between that of a grain of rice up to that of a jelly bean, and must make an epic journey from the birth canal to their mother’s pouch to complete their development.
Inside the pouch, they latch on to a teat and nourishing milk takes over the role of the placenta. Sibling rivalry begins early for marsupials, with the number of infants exceeding the number of available teats necessitating a race for survival with few victors.
Marsupials account for some of Australia’s best known and lesser known creatures which we as a family have been fascinated to learn about. These are some of our favourites.
As a visitor or newcomer to Australia, there is one fact that you will find impossible not to learn, one that you will be told over and over again by almost every Australian that you meet; Koalas, are NOT bears! That’s right, they might look like a woolly, grey, big eared cuddly teddy bear, but a bear they are not; Koalas are fully paid up members of the marsupial family.
Although they look like they are designed for the express purpose of delivering a warm hug, koalas actually have razor sharp claws, essential to their tree hugging capabilities, and are capable of delivering a nasty bite when they feel threatened. That said, it’s almost illegal to leave Australia without the customary koala hugging photo, and you can rest assured that the tamed variety in captivity are unlikely to put you in hospital.
Alas, the same can’t be said of their demon cousins, the Australian Drop Bear. Whilst you would be lucky to even know that a wild koala was in the vicinity unless you were looking very carefully, the drop bear will actively seek you out. Having developed a taste for human blood, these mutant marsupials lay in wait for unsuspecting passers-by and are well known to target tourists.
Statistics show that attacks are most likely to occur during April with an exponential peak on the first of the month. The only warning you will have of their imminent attack is the blood curdling scream they let out before you hear your own. The only way to protect yourselves against these rogue creatures is to spread vegemite liberally behind your ears as a repellent. Fortunately, drop bears are entirely fictitious!
Although koalas are one of the first animals you will usually think of when you think about Australia, their distribution across the country is actually relatively small; they are only found along the east coast and neighbouring islands. Human impact has led to declining numbers of wild koalas as a result of loss of habitat with housing development and urbanisation. Those remaining are often trapped within small isolated pockets of forest, separated from potential mates and vulnerable to threats such as dogs and busy roads. Bushfires also have a devastating impact upon surviving populations. Whilst not formally recognised as being endangered, numbers are never the less declining, a distressing prospect for such an iconic animal.
Koalas would certainly win the prize for Australia’s laziest animal; the somewhat toxic eucalyptus leaves of which their diet solely comprises provide little energy and koalas will sleep for up to 20 hours per day, spending all their waking hours eating.
Fibrous eucalyptus leaves are difficult to digest and require a little help from some friendly gut bacteria. Unfortunately, koalas aren’t born with this bacteria, nor can they neck a pro-biotic drink to acquire it; the rather gruesome truth is that in order to populate their own intestines, baby koalas must eat their mothers poop! The ‘pap’ is said to look a lot like green pesto – sorry if that’s put you off for life!
There are a few places where you stand a good chance of seeing a wild koala. We were lucky enough to spot a koala within 20 minutes of arriving on North Stradbrooke Island, wandering across the car park at Amity Point picnic park playground. We made further sightings on the North Gorge Walk and at our accommodation, Sea Shanties in Amity Point who are reliably visited by 2-3 wild koalas.
Daisy Hill Conservation Park in South Brisbane protects a large area of habitat for koalas raising the chances of a sighting. If you’re not lucky enough to spot a wild one here, the park features a koala centre where rescued koalas are on display to the public. Noosa National Park is also home to a population of these beautiful animals, although we have never been lucky enough to find one here.
Gunnedah in New South Wales boasts a large Koala population and the Porkupine Lookout Reserve is rumoured to be the best place to look. If you are travelling the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, look no further than Kennet River where these leaf munching lovelies congregate in the surrounding trees. Raymond Island and Magnetic Island are both home to introduced populations of Koalas offering a good chance of a sighting.
These oversized bush guinea pigs were the primary reason behind our visit to Tasmania, with Maria Island and Ronnie Creek at Cradle Mountain both being excellent places to spot wild wombats. Whilst wombats are generally nocturnal, they are frequently spotted during daylight hours in these locations. In New South Wales, the best place to find a wondering wombat is in the town of Kangaroo Valley, whilst Wilson’s Promontory National Park offers the best chance of a sighting in Victoria; these are both on our ‘to do’ list (you can never see too many wombats!)
There are 3 types of Wombat; the common wombat is the most numerous and can be found in South East Australia (New South Wales and Victoria) as well as in Tasmania. Whilst the common wombat has a bald nose, the other 2 species are hairy nosed; the larger Northern variety are now found only in Epping Forest National Park and Richard Underwood Nature Refuge, both of which are in Queensland. The Southern hairy nosed wombat which is the smallest of the wombat species can be found in South Australia.
Another of Australia’s unique marsupials, the Wombat is unusual in that its pouch faces backwards, a design feature which helps to protect their joeys against a mud shower whilst mum digs her burrows.
Their poo, believe it or not, is cuboid, which has something to do with a very slow transit through their digestive tract and is by far and away Ben and Sam’s favourite wombat fact! They are prolific composting machines, capable of producing up to 100 of these perfect poops per day. Their efforts don’t go un-noticed since they use their bowel bounty to mark territory and attract mates.
Although Wombats don’t look as though they were built for speed, they can actually reach up to 40 Km per hour (25 mph) over short distances when they feel threatened or are protecting their young. Equally deceptive is their cuddly appearance; those tempted to move in for a squeeze of a wild wombat will discover that they have very sharp claws for digging burrows, and strong teeth for chewing tough vegetation.
Wombats are one species who can legitimately blame being ‘big boned’ for their robust appearance, with their bones having an unusually large diameter. The remainder of their hefty physique is attributable to muscle and fur as opposed to fat. They also feature battle ready backsides; their posterior ends are padded with thick cartilage making it difficult for predators to cause any substantial injuries from this angle; when threatened, a wombat will dive into the nearest available tunnel and use their bottom to block their attacker. These features should make anyone feeling animosity towards one think twice before entering into wombat combat!
Wombats give birth to single infants after a 20 day gestation period. Like all marsupials, baby wombats complete their development in their mother’s pouch, emerging at around 6 months of age, and are fully weaned by around 15 months.
Male wombats are ‘Jacks’ and females, ‘Jills’, with both looking more than ready to roll down a hill! The collective noun for a group of wombats is a ‘Wisdom’.
When we visited Tasmania, we knew that leaving without seeing a Tasmanian Devil would be rather like visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel tower, therefore a visit to Devils@Cradle was high on our agenda (they are rather elusive and nocturnal so we didn’t fancy our chances at spotting a wild one). What we hadn’t expected was to fall so madly in love with these noisy little dog-like characters. After an hour of watching their playful antics, seeing their none too scary yawns, meeting some adorable joeys and learning about their fight for survival, we were all smitten.
Tasmanian devils were named by the first European settlers on account of their red ears, wide toothy jaws and their haunting nocturnal screams and growls. Devil’s are not just unique to Australia; although fossils suggest they were once found on the mainland, they are now found only in Tasmania and neighbouring Maria Island. It is thought that they were hunted to extinction by the dingo on mainland Australia long before the arrival of the European settlers.
Historically, Devils were considered a nuisance to European settlers owing to their taste for chickens. During the 1800’s a reward was offered for their capture and killing. Populations were further threatened by a demand for their fur. Their numbers declined towards extinction up until they became a protected species in 1941 and the population started to recover.
In 1996, however, a new threat emerged in the form of Devils Facial Tumour Disease. This contagious cancer is transmitted via saliva from affected to healthy animals through biting and the sharing of carcasses. The disease causes facial tumours which can grow very large, affecting the devil’s ability to feed and thereby causing death from starvation. This disease had wiped out up to 80% of the wild Tasmanian devil population and remains the greatest threat to the species today.
In a fight against extinction, a captive devil breeding programme, Aussie Ark has helped to boost numbers. Disease free wild devils have been released on to Maria Island to establish a healthy wild population. The discovery of a disease-free wild group in a remote coastal park in Tasmania has also offered new hope for the future of the species.
Tasmanian devils are the largest remaining carnivorous marsupials since the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) became extinct. These small dog-like animals are predominantly black with distinctive white markings around their chest and rumps, the patterns of which are unique to individual devils.
Tasmanian devil’s are natures vacuum cleaners, scavenging for carcases and eating even those which are rotting, although they will also hunt small live animals including lizards and birds and sick or injured larger animals. They are capable of one of the world’s strongest bites which allows them to eat their meal in its entirety, bones and all. Their clean-up operations help to control maggot populations and therefore guard against fly strike in sheep, making them a farmer’s friend, provided he roosts his chicken’s out of reach of course.
Devils are one of Australia’s greediest animals, eating up to 40% of their own body weight per day. Their tails act as fat reserves where they store excess food which they can draw upon during times of famine.
Like wombats, their pouches face backwards, but unlike wombats, there are 4 teats allowing Devil’s to raise up to 4 young at a time although this is unusual.
If you’re keen to go devil spotting, there are several wildlife sanctuaries in Tasmania where sightings are guaranteed. If you’re desperate to see a wild one, camping overnight at Maria Island is probably your best option, but you will need a lot of luck on your side.
Australia just wouldn’t be Australia without the kangaroos, in fact, I’d be willing to bet that my mother in law truly believed that they were about the only signs of life we would likely encounter on the vast red desert that is Australia (she has since discovered that there is a bit more to the country that that!).
The word ‘Kangaroo’ comes from the Aboriginal word ‘Gangurru’ used by the Gugga Yimithirr people of North Queensland as the name for Eastern Grey kangaroos. Although different Aboriginal groups speaking various languages had different names for other species of Kangaroo, Captain James Cook took this to be the generic name for all of these similar animals, and this is the name by which they are collectively known today.
Kangaroos have historically been, and continue to be, a major source of meat for Aboriginal people. Kangaroos and kangaroo hunting are frequently depicted in ancient Aboriginal rock art as well as in modern indigenous art work. If you can bring yourself to eat Skippy, the meat is very lean and tasty although care must be taken to avoid overcooking it; no-one wants to eat a burnt boomer. Interestingly, not a lot of non-indigenous Australians eat Kangaroo meat and it’s more popular with Europeans. Kangaroo skins are used as rugs, clothing, shoes and leather products throughout Australia and for the tourist industry. You may be as surprised, as we were, to discover how beautifully soft their fur is.
There is an Aboriginal Dreamtime (creation) story which tells of how the Kangaroo came to have his tail. As the story goes, back in the Dreamtime, there were 2 Kangaroo’s; a big Kangaroo with long arms and legs who came from the plains and a small Kangaroo with short arms and legs who came from the hills.
One day, the small Kangaroo was hunting for ‘sugarbag’ (bush honey) by following the bees to their hives. Eventually, he found some in a hole in a rock by putting his hand just inside and he started to eat the delicious sugarbag. His friend, the big Kangaroo was hungry and he too wanted some sugarbag.
The small Kangaroo told him to reach all the way into the hole with his long arms to reach the sugarbag, but when he did, he found only spiders. The small kangaroo kept encouraging him to try again, but each time, he just pulled out spiders whilst the small kangaroo pulled out more and more sugarbag until he had eaten the lot!
The big kangaroo was angry at the small kangaroo for tricking him. He tore a branch off the white gum tree to fight. The small kangaroo thought he’d better find a stick too and pulled a branch from the red bloodwood. The pair fought and fought until the red kangaroo turned and ran away. The small kangaroo threw his stick at the big kangaroo and it stuck right into him.
Angrier than ever, the red kangaroo turned and threw his own stick at the small kangaroo, which stuck right into him.
The two kangaroo’s both hopped back to their homes on the plains and in the hills respectively, and to this day, the generations that have followed have had long tails.
Kangaroo’s are members of the Macropodidae family of marsupials, a Latin word which translates to mean ‘big foot’. They use their oversized feet to hop up to 6 foot from the ground and reaching speeds of up to 60 Kph, however are only able to move forwards, never backwards, rather like a pawn in a game of chess. Kangaroos are depicted on the Australian coat of arms, along with the Emu who likewise lacks the ability to move backwards, with both therefore symbolising progress.
There are four main types of kangaroo; red kangaroos are the largest living marsupial in the world with adult males weighing up to 90Kg and reaching heights of around 1.8 metres, although the largest recorded stood at 2.1 metres tall! Whilst kangaroo attacks on humans are exceptionally rare, an adult male could cause serious injury to a human with his powerful back legs, and your car won’t thank you for colliding with one.
Red kangaroos are mostly found across central Australia with their diet of grass allowing them to store enough water to survive the arid desert conditions. Whilst the males have reddish brown fur, the smaller females are more of a bluey grey.
The Eastern Grey or Forrester Kangaroo occupies Southern and Eastern Australia whilst the Western Grey Kangaroo is found all across the Southern parts of Australia. Male Western Grey’s could use a little aftershave as they have a very strong odour, leading to them being known as ‘Stinkers’!
One of the most incredible adaptations of all kangaroos bar the Western Grey kangaroo is their ability to pause embryonic development when pregnant; almost immediately after giving birth to her underdeveloped infant and this infant reaching the safety of her pouch and attaching to a teat, female kangaroos produce another egg. If this egg is fertilised, the development of the embryo can be frozen in time until her joey leaves her pouch, or during periods of drought or famine in a phenomenon called embryonic dispause. This also allows her time to spring clean her pouch between Joeys since, despite it being otherwise perfectly designed to accommodate a growing joey, it does lack toilet facilities.
Perhaps rather surprisingly, Kangaroo’s are strong swimmers and will take to water to avoid predators such as Dingo’s. They are even able to drown their attacker by holding them under the water.
You will find Kangaroos on display at all of Australia’s zoos and wildlife parks, often with the option to feed them pellet food. Given that the population of Kangaroo’s in Australia is thought to be close to double that of the human population, you will also have a good chance of seeing a wild one even in developed area. Perhaps the mother in law had a point after all?
The name Wallaby comes from the Eora Aboriginal people of costal New South Wales. Essentially, wallabies are just smaller versions of kangaroos and have all the same characteristics as their larger cousins. Although generally smaller, the largest can reach up to 6 feet tall.
There are about 30 species of Wallaby which are grouped together according to their habitat (eg, Rock Wallabies, Swamp Wallabies etc). Their individual names often refer to their physical appearance, such as nail tailed wallabies who possess a horny spur at the ends of their tails, or by their behaviour, for example, Hare wallabies are so named because their bouncing movements resemble those of a Hare.
Wallabies are widely distributed throughout Australia, occupying a range of different habitats although they are excluded from the desert plains favoured by the Red kangaroo. There are introduced populations in New-Zealand where they are generally considered to be a pest, and a few colonies even reside in the UK having escaped from zoo’s and wildlife parks, with at least 100 living on the Isle of Man! Looks like there’s no escape for the mother in law then….
We enjoyed meeting the friendly (roughly translates, ‘greedy’) Rock Wallabies at Granite Gorge Nature Park near Mareeba, North Queensland. When we arrived on the rocks with the bags of feed we have bought from the visitor centre; it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by hungry wallabies who were more than happy to allow a pat in exchange for food. The boys still rank this as one of their favourite North Queensland experiences.
Our first encounter with a wild Possum was whilst we were cycling along the water front at Bribie Island and wondered why a couple were starring intently at a tree trunk. The answer revealed itself as first a twitching nose and whiskers followed by the furry face and enormous brown eyes of a Ring Tailed Possum emerged from a tree hole to claim the grapes it was being offered by the couple. They had apparently been feeding the same mother and her various offspring for several years.
There are 23 species of possum in Australia ranging from the tiny pygmy possums to the much larger Ring Tailed and Common Brushtail Possums. Different species are widespread across Australia owing to the diversity of the habitats they can occupy and of their diets.
Historically, possums were a major source of protein for Aboriginal people whilst their fur was used for clothing and rugs. Not the only ones to appreciate the thick luxurious coats of the possum, European settlers slaughtered them in their thousands both for meat and their beautiful fur, much of which was exported.
The Common Brushtail Possum was introduced to New Zealand for the benefit of the fur industry, however is now considered a pest there, thriving on New Zealand’s lush vegetation with a booming population long after the fur industry has died a death.
Unlike other species for whom urbanisation has been detrimental to their numbers, Possums have adapted very well to their changed surroundings. Whilst conventionally residing in tree holes, with the availability of such homes becoming scarce, many have opted to instead occupy roof cavities where several may co-habit quite happily.
Human occupiers will report bumping and scratching and a whole range of vocalisations leading on occasion to homeowners believing their house is haunted! Urine stains on ceilings and the smell of rotting flesh when they make a roof space their final resting place do nothing to ingratiate them with their unwitting landlords.
Unfortunately, their dietary diversity also extends to prized blooms, pet food, the stripping of fruit trees and an appetite for freshly grown vegetables that would give Peter Rabbit a run for his money! Before we condemn them too much however, it’s important to remember that you probably stole their home before they commandeered yours.
Love them or hate them, Australians are just going to have to live with them since they are now a protected species. Professional Possum movers can take them out of your roof cavity but they can only relocate them as far as 25 metres from where they were found as they are likely to die otherwise; chances are, they’ll tear up that eviction notice and move straight back in! It is therefore recommended that you build them a nesting box so man and beast can live in harmony. With those beautiful brown eyes, I think Stu may be finding a few nesting boxes in our garden!
Monotremes are some of the most unique animals on the planet, with only 5 species remaining in the world of which four are echidnas and the other is the platypus. Fossil evidence suggests that they are also one of the oldest; described as ‘prototheria’, a Greek word meaning ‘first wild animal’, they are believed to have first appeared along with the earliest dinosaurs some 210 million years ago. Monotremes are a subclass of mammals but unlike other mammals, they lay eggs as opposed to giving birth to live young. Besides being old and rare, they are also exceptionally weird. What you are about to read may sound like another ‘April fools’, but I promise, its all true!
Falling squarely into the ‘downright bizarre’ category, featuring a flattened bill and webbed feet like a duck, the body of an otter and the tail of a beaver, the platypus looks like it was made from spare parts and scientist initially believed it was a hoax and not a real animal at all! In fact, scientists have since discovered that the platypus shares genes with reptiles, birds and mammals which accounts for its unusual appearance.
Platypus are semi aquatic with waterproof fur. They hunt underwater using special sensors in their bills to detect electrical impulses from their prey (electrolocation). Their foot webbing, which helps them to swim, retracts to reveal sharp claws; these they use to build burrows in the soil banks or vegetation surrounding their hunting grounds.
It will come as no surprise to those believing that everything in Australia wants to kill you that the males are equipped with venomous spurs on their back legs – even the cute ones are deadly! This was certainly enough to put Daniel right off swimming in the Meander River in Deloraine. Interestingly though, they don’t have teeth and instead use gravel to help grind up their food. It’s reassuring to know that a female platypus is only equipped to gum you to death!
When Stu and I first encountered platypus at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, they were much smaller than we’d expected. We have been lucky enough since then to spot wild platypus in Tasmania (Cradle Mountain on the Enchanted Walk and in Deloraine). Warrawee Reserve in Latrobe, Tasmania is rumoured to be the platypus spotting capital of the world!
We have also made sightings in North Queensland (Yungaburra, where we also saw a rarw Lumholz Tree Kangaroo. There is also a smokehouse at Tarzail where they can be spotted although this isn’t somewhere we’ve visited personally).
Platypus are best spotted at dawn and dusk when they are most active but they are shy and rather elusive so stealth is required. Bubbles and ripples in the water are tell-tale signs to look out for when platypus spotting.
We met our first wild echidna in Tasmania; driving along a road, I suddenly caught sight of what appeared to be a large prickly ball sitting on the verge. With my usual composure in such situations, I shouted ‘STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!’ to Stu who was driving and he screeched to a halt assuming there was a crisis! Reassurances made, we reversed our way back up the fortunately quiet road and sure enough, there he was wondering what all the fuss was about.
Echidnas are no less bizarre than their fellow monotremes, the platypus. With a beak like a bird, long lizard like tongue, the spines of a porcupine, hind feet that face backwards, a pouch like a kangaroo and the ability to lay eggs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these too are a spare part species or that there had been some major malfunctions in the manufacturing process! Perhaps their strangest feature of all though is their reproductive organs; males have a 4 headed penis whilst the females have a 2 branched reproductive tract.
Their odd reproductive behaviour doesn’t end there; during the breeding season, male echidnas will form mating trains, lining up nose to tail behind a single female waiting for her to be ready to mate which can take up to six weeks. When she finally gives the go ahead, the waiting males dig a trench around her then push one another out of the trench in a show of dominance with the last man standing winning the role of expectant father. Some males preferring to avoid such patience and efforts will instead display deplorable behaviour in waking early from hibernation to mate with a still sleeping female.
Female Echidnas roll on to their backs to lay a single small leathery egg which rolls down their abdomen into their waiting pouch. Unlike the permanent pouch of a marsupial, the echidnas pouch is only temporary, formed by a fold of her abdominal muscles. Both males and females can make this pouch, making it difficult to tell them apart. The baby echidna, called a puggle, hatches after 10 days using a single tooth to break its way out of the egg. Adult echidnas don’t have teeth and a puggle can expect only one visit from the tooth fairy when this single tooth falls out after only 1-2 days.
Puggles are unsurprisingly evicted from the pouch when they start to develop spines after around 2 months, and mum will dig a burrow to keep it safe. Unlike other animals, echidnas lack nipples or teats and instead excrete milk through abdominal glands to feed their young. They are fully weaned by around 10 months of age.
Echidnas are covered in short coarse hair which insulates them from the cold (there are actually cold places in Australia!) as well as adapted hairs which form spines to protect if from predators. According to Aboriginal dreamtime stories, the Echidna has not always had spikes and there are two versions of how he came to have them.
One version tells of a greedy and lazy Echidna named Wanja who was the proud owner of beautiful black feathers tipped in white. He was noted to always be the first to arrive at any feast laid on by the other animals and the last to leave, making sure that he always ate the most.
One day, the Emu became sick and so the wise owl sent the other animals into the bush to fetch the ingredients he required to make a medicinal potion for Emu. Before giving the potion to Emu, the wise owl warned the other animals that it was only to be used by sick animals. On drinking some of the medicine, Emu felt immediately better.
The animals decided to hold a celebratory feast and hurried to collect food. Echidna, of course, as too lazy to fetch food. He soon began to feel hungry and, ignoring wise owls warning, drank the rest of Emu’s medicine. Immediately, his beautiful feathers melted leaving only the spiky quills we see today.
In an alternative version of events, the Jaru people describe how Echidna stayed under the shade tree to look after the children of the other animals whilst their parents hunted for food. Each day, they would return to feed their children all of the best food whilst poor Echidna received only the scraps.
One day, he grew angry and tore up the shade tree by its roots, carrying it away from the other animals. Realising that they would die of thirst in the hot sun, the other animals begged Echidna to put it back but on he marched with the tree. They tried a boomerang to stop him, but whilst it broke his toes, he continued to shuffle away with the tree.
Finally, they threw spears at him, and he howled in pain as he became covered in spears. He dropped the tree which broke as it rolled across the ground, its branches sticking into the ground and making many smaller trees. Echidna died and the other animals buried him amongst the rocks. From that day forwards, Echidnas have shuffled along with their broken feet, their backs still full of hunting spears.
However they came to be, those spines are a useful deterrent against predators and Echidnas are able to curl themselves into a ball or bury themselves with only their spikes exposed to ward off danger. The only predator entirely unperturbed by the spikes is the Tasmanian Devil who will happily eat those along with the meat.
Just like a platypus bill, the Echidnas beak uses electrolocation sensors to find insects, ants, worms and larvae, with their claws allowing them to dig into the soil to expose their finds. Their long tongues move quickly to pick up their meal before it can escape and sticky saliva helps to keep hold of a snack. With no teeth to chew with, they use hard pads around their tongues to grind up their food.
Echidnas have the widest distribution of any Australian mammal and are found throughout the country, as well as in Papa New Guinea. If you want to spot a wild one, you could do worse than to take a trip to Tasmania where regular sightings are made at both Mount Field and Cradle Mountain National Parks, although they can be fairly elusive so you will need luck to be on your side. Both Philip Island in Victoria and Kangaroo Island in South Australia are known to be Echidna spotting territory.
With the dingo being so readily associated with Australia, it will no doubt come as a surprise to many that it is not a native species at all, but was introduced to the country by humans, its origins having been traced back to ancient Asian dogs. That said, this introduction was made some 4000 years ago giving weight to the argument that it is as good as native; the subject is somewhat contentious in Australia. In official terms, the Dingo would have had to have arrived in the country by 1400 AD to be considered a true native which seems a little unfair since Caucasian settlers arriving long after the Dingo are deemed to be so!
Native or not, the Dingo has enormous cultural and ecological significance to the country it now calls home. The role of the Dingo is deeply embedded in Aboriginal culture as a hunting companion and in physical and spiritual protection. In some cultures where sorcery is deemed to be a very real threat, the behaviour of a Dingo such as barking or howling is interpreted in relation to the spirit world. Some Aboriginal groups consider Dingoes to be re-incarnations of their ancestors. On a more practical note, Dingoes sometimes double up as living hot water bottles in poorer communities where warm bedding is in short supply.
As apex predators, Dingoes play an important ecological role in controlling feral pests such as cats and red foxes which pose a threat to native wildlife, as well as controlling kangaroo numbers and thereby their effects on vegetation chomping. This role has become all the more important since the Thylacine became extinct, leaving the Dingo as Australia’s sole large land-dwelling predator.
You won’t find many farmers singing the dingoes praises; European settlers and Dingoes fell out over the Dingoes taste for sheep with grazing livestock making easy pickings for the predator. Ultimately, the disharmony resulted in the building of the worlds longest fence in South East Australia which stretches 5614Km across the country.
Although we usually only use our own photos, we’ve never snapped a decent dingo photo … this one courtesy of David Clode
Fraser Island is home to the purest breed of Dingoes remaining in Australia due to their lack of interaction and therefore interbreeding with wild and domestic dogs as has occurred in other parts of Australia. This makes Fraser Island’s Dingoes of particular scientific importance; whilst overall numerous as a species, pure bread Dingoes are close to extinct in other areas due to inbreeding with domestic dogs. We were really excited to see them for ourselves when we visited Fraser Island, however alas, no sightings were made. On the up side, this means of course that we will have to take a return visit!
Much as they resemble domestic dogs, the two should never be confused and extreme caution should be exercised in Dingo territory. With no reliance whatsoever on humans for their survival, quite unlike domestic dogs, Dingoes should be considered more akin to wolves and treated with the same trepidation. Dingoes howl like a wolf rather than barking the way a dog will, and they will hunt in packs of up to 12 animals, usually involving a dominant mating pair and two sets of offspring. Attempts to tame them have proved to be unsuccessful throughout history as their predatory nature is irrepressible.
Dingoes are highly intelligent and will overcome obstacles they encounter, even being able to turn door handles on account of their mobile wrist joints. In places where Dingoes are known to exist close to humans, such as Fraser Island, residents and visitors are advised to minimise contact and certainly never to feed them or make food available to them as this will ultimately lead to them posing a threat to humans. With the Dingo more active at dawn and dusk, these are the times to avoid walking alone and especially to keep children close by.
There have unfortunately been a number of cases of Dingo attacks on humans, many involving children and several proving fatal. As beautiful and intriguing as they are, it is important to follow the advice and admire them from a safe distance.