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Wildlife of Australia

What is so different about Australia?

eastern grey
                  kangaroo and joeyplatypusWell, for starters:
  • it is the only continent  to still have all three of the major groups of mammals: monotremes (egg-layers), marsupials and placentals 
  • half its mammal species are marsupials
  • its large grazing animals are all marsupials or birds, mostly moving on two legs (kangaroos, emus)
  • it is the only country in the world to have kangaroos (although it shares wallabies with New Guinea), koalas, wombats numbats, platypus, lyrebirds and many other strange and fascinating creatures
  • most of the world's cockatoos are native to Australia, and it has more parrots than any continent other than South America
  • Glow worms (larvae of a tiny gnat, living in caves and overhanging rocks - not the same as the 'glow worm' of the northern hemisphere, which is the larva of the firefly) live only in Australia and New Zealand.
  • enuscockatooit is the only continent other than Antarctica to NOT have native hoofed animals, or native terrestrial Carnivora (dogs, bears, cats, weasels etc., but we do have seals and sea lions) - the dingo appears to have arrived from South-east Asia only about 4,000 years ago, probably with Indonesian traders
  • it is probably the birthplace of the world's songbirds, and shares with New Zealand some songbirds with primitive characteristics
  • lyrebirds, arguably the world's best mimics, occur only here
  • some of our frogs have bizarre breeding habits - e.g. the gastric brooding frog (now apparently extinct) and the hip pocket frog
  • we have most of the world's ten most venomous snakes (in terms of toxins applied to mice) but not necessarily the most dangerous (which is a function also of behaviour and habitats of snakes)
And how did it become so different? Australia has been the most isolated of all continents since splitting from the great supercontinent Gondwana about 50 million years ago, and the evolution has had a chance to produce many different ways of coping with the Australian environments.

Evolutionary/biogeographical history of Australia

GondwanaAustralia was once part of the great southern super-continent Gondwana (which included what we now know as South America, Africa, Madagascar and India as well as many of what are now smaller islands). India broke away and other parts gradually did likewise

About 50 million years ago Australia and New Guinea jointly drifted away from Antarctica,. This was the final major break-up of the huge southern continent.

Australia moves northAustralia broke away before any hoofed animals, cats, bears, monkeys, rodents or other placental mammals reached it, but did have monotremes (egg-laying mammals) and marsupials (mammals whose young are born at a very immature stage and attach firmly to a teat inside a pouch or between protective flaps of skin for the next few weeks). As it drifted northwards, Australia was isolated from other continents for many millions of years. Bats and sea mammals soon reached it - others had to wait until it got close to Asia.

Thus its fauna and flora include many species whose ancestors were in Gondwana, some of which, like the emus, freshwater turtles, tree frogs and land snails, still somewhat resemble their cousins in South America, which had also remained attached to Antarctica for a long time (in the days when Antarctica still had forests).
Others, like the kangaroos, platypus and lyrebirds, are remarkably different from animals on any other continent.

Also see:
Evolutionary history of freshwater fishes and crustaceans of south-east Australia: conservation, genetics, and geology
Phylogenetic Systematics and Bioinformatics, Australian National University (reptiles, invertebrates, plants)
Geological History and Australian Flora
Australia's oldest amphibians

Fish (or go to mammals, birds, reptilesfrogs or invertebrates)

eelFish are vertebrates that live their entire lives in water, breathe through gills and don’t go through the kind of dramatic life-change that amphibians do (although some, like the lungfish, have developed ways of occasionally breathing in air).

Australia’s freshwater fish have all evolved relatively recently from marine ancestors – we don’t have the families common in other continents with a long evolutionary history of freshwater life.

No attempt will be made here to cover the tremendous diversity of fish, just a few points of interest here:
  • The Australian lungfish, a freshwater species capable of breathing in air, is considered a ‘living fossil’ and is found in some of Queensland’s rivers. Only five other species occur worldwide, all in Africa and South American waters. It is strictly protected.
  • The eels (photo top right) in Australian rivers start their lives near New Caledonia and other part of the south-west Pacific, make a journey to Australia where they live for 12 years or more in the rivers of the east coast, then find their way back to their birthplace to breed. There are usually at least a couple resident on the Araucaria property.
  • The world’s largest fish, the whale-shark, visits the western coast each year. Carefully-controlled diving near these huge creatures (which feed only on plankton) is a popular tourist activity at Ningaloo.
  • mudskipperThe world-famous Great Barrier Reef harbours a vast and fascinating diversity of fish, some of which featured in the popular animation film ‘Finding Nemo.’
  • The strange leafy sea-dragon, related to sea-horses, can sometimes be seen by divers near Kangaroo Island and other parts of the southern coastline.
  • The mud skipper, seen amongst mangrove roots (and climbing them!) north of Cairns, comes out of the water and stares at you!

Further information on fish:

Freshwater fish

Australian freshwater fish have all evolved relatively recently from marine ones - we have none of the ancient lineages of freshwater fish families that other continents have
A very good source of information on our freshwater fish, their ecology, behaviour and conservation,  is Native Fish Australia

Marine fish

We have a wonderful diversity of marine fish, from the strange leafy sea dragon of South Australian coasts, through the myriads of coral reef fish to the biggest fish in the world, the whale-shark
Sites with good information on reef fish include CRC Reef and Ocean Light,  a large site with many photos of reef fish
leafy seadragon   clownfish



Invertebrates deserve many pages of web space, ranging from microscopic mites of the leaf litter and plankton in the sea, through the amazing reef-building corals and 'cold-light' producing glow worms, bright and beautiful butterflies, to giant earthworms and giant clams - thousands upon thousands of species, and many we probably do not yet know the existence of.

More details will be added to this page in the future

Meantime see:
Bugwise (Australian Invertebrates)
Arachnids (book about spiders, ticks and kin)


Insects - coming soon!

A useful compact reference is: Zbrowksi, P. and Storey, R. (1995). A Field Guide to Insects of Australia. Reed Books, Kew (an amazing amount of detail packed into a compact paperback book)
CSIRO produces two massive (and expensive!) volumes for the identification of Australian insects
There are also various useful guides to Australian dragonflies, butterflies, moths, ants, stick insects (phasmids) and other insects)
Common, I. F. B. and Waterhouse, D. F. (1981). Butterflies of Australia. Angus and Robertson, London
The Complete Field Guide to Dragonflies of Australia
Moths of Australia



Australian spiders include the 'true' spiders and the 'primitive' spiders.

funnelwebThe 'primitive spiders have jaws which point downwards, meaning that to bite they need to rear up and strike downwards. Australia's most dangerous spiders, the funnel webs, are in this group, and also the trapdoors. To keep the danger in perspective though, there have only been 14 recorded deaths by funnel webs in the history of white settlement.  Most of these have occurred in Sydney, where funnels are sometimes built in gardens and inadvertently disturbed.

The 'true' spiders include all the others, including the infamous redback (probably a form of black widow, responsible for a similar number of deaths but none since the introduction of antivenin in the 1950's), the large and impressive golden orb weavers, the huntsman and wolf spiders that chase their prey instead of snaring it, and many others, some quite beautifully coloured. The vast majority are never dangerous, but some can give a painful nip.

crabOther invertebrates include:

    * Sea-stars, sea-urchins and sea-cucumbers
    * Molluscs - snails, slugs,cowries, oysters, clams, octopus ...
    * Earthworms and leeches
    * Flatworms - not related to earthworms (they're just called worms because they're long and thin and lack legs)
    * Jellyfish, anemones and corals
    * Sponges
    * Various other groups of small creatures

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                    white butterflyshort-necked turtleWhat do the words 'vertebrate' and 'invertebrate' mean?

Vertebrates (like the turtle on the right, and the koala above) are animals with a chord of nerve tissue running from the brain down the centre of their backs protected by a series of small bones (or cartilage in some of the more 'primitive' fish such as sharks and rays) known as vertebrae. This column of bones is often called a 'vertebral column', a 'backbone', or a 'spine'. All vertebrates also have skull and ribs, and apart from fish most have four limbs (either four legs, two wings and two legs, or two arms and two legs).

Invertebrates (like the butterfly pictured) do not have vertebrae, and their nervous systems often follow a somewhat different pattern. The largest group of invertebrates are the arthropods, including insects, spiders, crustaceans and others with an external skeleton (exoskeleton), a tough skin which supports and holds the softer body parts in place in much the same way that the internal skeleton of vertebrates does for theirs. Other invertebrates are molluscs (which often have hard eternal shells but not jointed limbs), various 'worms' (which include several distinctly different and unrelated groups), anemones, sea-stars and various other groups.

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