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Iconic Animals of the Australian Outback

Kangaroo at Lucky Bay in the Cape Range National Park near Esperance, Western Australia

Iconic Animals of the Australian Outback

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Iconic Animals of the Australian Outback

When it comes to Australia‘s iconic wildlife, the more well known faces of the Kangaroo, Emu, or Koala generally spring to mind. But for many Australians, or visitors from abroad, it can be easy to forget the incredible diversity of wildlife that inhabits this enormous continent, ranging from the weird to the wondrous. Australia‘s distinctive biodiversity has evolved independently over time due to its incredibly long period of geographic isolation from the rest of the world, with the last major connection dating all the way back to the super-continent Gondwana between 140-160 million years ago. For this reason, Australian wildlife has evolved down such a distinctive pathway, with the continental landscape playing host to entirely different classes of animal not seen anywhere else on earth. Of these animals, the most distinctive and recognisable are Australia‘s marsupials, a variety of mammals found predominantly on the Australian continent, including the Kangaroo and Koala, but with hundreds more as well. In fact, Australia is one of only two places where all three of the major mammalian groups can be found, namely marsupials, monotremes, and placentals. Aside from its mammals, Australian wildlife features a huge abundance of birds, reptiles, amphibians and marine life, being one of the most diverse ecological areas on earth. Australia is also characterised by the total lack of native Carnivora, and as such features a huge variety of wonderful creatures that have evolved with very few, or no natural predators. In fact, to find large predators in Australia‘s history you have to go back tens of thousands of years to the era of Australian megafauna, with wild creatures such as the marsupial lion, or the megalania, a type of giant goanna.

Mammals

Kangaroo

When it comes to Australia‘s wildlife, the first thing most people think of is the iconic Kangaroo. In Australia there are 6 main species the term ‘Kangaroo‘ encapsulates, ranging from the smaller wallaroo, to more familiar species such as the eastern grey kangaroo, or the large and powerful red kangaroo. Kangaroo‘s most distinctive feature is their unique method of locomotion, namely hopping forward on its two strong hind legs, some species can even reach speeds of 55km (34mph) per hour, and clear distances of up to 13m (43ft) in a single bound. Generally kangaroos are docile and passive creatures, relying on a diet of grasses and other small plants, and pose no threat to humans, though they have been known to defend themselves from hunters and dogs in the past. Today there are over 50 million kangaroos in Australia, twice as many as the country’s human population! With the number projected to increase further with each passing year.

Wild Kangaroos on the beach at cape Hillsborough silhouetted at sunrise.

Wallaby

The Kangaroo‘s smaller relative, the wallaby is similar in appearance and demeanor to its larger cousin, with very few real differences between the species, save for the larger size that characterizes the kangaroo. Wallabies are also herbivorous and generally passive creatures, though in contrast to some of the large kangaroos, they can be found in a larger variety of habitats. The rock wallaby is one such example of this kind of animal, living in colonies centered around sheltered rocky outcrops. The yellow-footed rock wallaby in particular is renown for its incredible fur pattern, and can be found throughout Australia‘s Flinders Ranges region.

Tammar wallaby

Koala

Another of Australia‘s more iconic marsupials, the Koala is found all along Australia‘s eastern coast, and is known for its small size, sleepiness, and overall cuddly appearance. The koala‘s name is said to have originally come from the indigenous word ‘gula’ meaning ‘no water’, this is due to the fact that koalas are rarely seen coming down from the treetops, so it was thought that they derived all their water needs from the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. Though this has subsequently been proven as a myth, the specificity of the diet certainly isn’t, eating almost exclusively the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. Though the makes the koala a specialist eater in some regards, there are over 600 species of eucalyptus in Australia, around 30 of which koalas show a particular preference for, due to the higher protein content in these species. Despite this, a koala‘s diet is still overall very low in nutrition, which is why most koalas will spend upwards of 20 hours a day napping, bear in mind this is how you will likely find them on a visit to a zoo or wildlife sanctuary.

close-up of a young koala bear (Phascolarctos cinereus) on a tree eating eucalypt leaves.

Tasmanian Devil

Native to the small island of Tasmania off Australia southern coastline, the Tasmanian Devil is a small carnivorous marsupial known for its ferocity, and clever opportunistic scavenging behaviour. Overall they are rather diminutive in size, reaching up to 65cm in length, though they are still rather powerful predators, with one of the most powerful bites for its size of any mammal on earth. In the wild, Tasmanian devils are generally solitary creatures, though they can come together in groups to scavenge, or during breeding season. Currently the ‘Tassie devil’, is threatened from both human activity, as well as a virus that has been reducing the population, though attempts have been made to conserve the iconic animal, including the introduction of a New South Wales colony.

Tasmanian Devil

Wombat

Found across southern, and eastern Australia, as well as across the island of Tasmania, the wombat is a small, rotund burrowing marsupial. Measuring about a meter in length, and weighing in at about 20 or 30kg, the wombat is a herbivorous creature, often living in deep burrows, and coming out in search of grazing in the twilight, or evening hours. Though they are generally seen pottering around slowly and leisurely, wombats can in fact move incredibly fast when they need to, reaching speeds of up to 40km per hour when threatened or on the run. When hiding from predators like dogs or Tasmanian devils, they are known to delve head first into their burrows, leaving their thick bony backside exposed to the confounded predator, while they kick them away with their strong hind paws.

“Close up of wombat in Narawntapu national park, Australia”

Quokka

Found on a number of islands off the coast of Western Australia, the quokka is famous as one of the world’s most photogenic creatures. At just the size of a small domestic house cat, the quokka is actually among the smallest kinds of kangaroo. They are generally extremely calm, friendly, and unafraid of humans, or many potential predators, and feed on a diet of grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation. With the introduction of non-native predators such as foxes and cats, much of the mainland Australia quokka population was drastically reduced, with only a few protected pockets remaining. Despite this, the quokka is plentiful on islands off the coast, such as Rottnest Island, where they are a major draw for tourists in the region.

Quokka eating leaf on Rottnest Island

Numbat

Found in a number of protected areas in Western Australia, as well as some newly introduced areas in South Australia and New South Wales, the numbat is a curious marsupial, with an insectivorous diet, and long sticky tongue, much like an anteater or aardvark. At around 40cm long, the numbat is quite a small marsupial, with a characteristic black and brown striped fur and a long bushy tail, it also has a full set of non functional teeth, which it never requires due to its diet consisting entirely of termites. Despite once being widespread across western and south Australia, the numbat is only found in a number of small protected areas today, being unaccustomed to the influx of new predators brought to Australia by humans.

Numbat walking along a log

Bilby

Once found throughout about 70% of Australia, the Bilby is now known as one of Australia‘s rare desert dwelling marsupials. Found today in places such as the Kimberley, Pilbara, as well as the Tanami, Gibson, and Great Sandy Deserts the Bilby is nocturnal omnivore, emerging from its burrows to hunt grubs, insects, and eat seeds or grasses. With an incredible sense of smell and hearing, the bilby does not rely on sight to hunt, and is able to sense prey burrowed deep beneath the sand below. Its nocturnal hunting also serves the added benefit of removing the need for the bilby to find water, gathering all of the moisture it requires from hunting small prey beneath the desert floor. Today many Australian’s will recognise the bilby as the country’s unofficial replacement of the eastern bunny, with the campaign aimed at raising funds and awareness for the bilby’s conservation efforts.

Bilby on red soil

Sugar Glider

Found across northern, and eastern Australia all the way down to the island of Tasmania, the sugar glider is another of Australia‘s smaller marsupial variety. The sugar glider gets its name for its known predilection for sweet foods such as nectar, sap, or honey, as well as its ability to glide between trees, with large flaps of skin serving the function of basic wings. The sugar glider is a small creature, at just 30cm long, and incredibly light at just over 100 grams, which no doubt aids it in soaring effortlessly between trees, they also have strong hind paws with an opposable thumb, allowing them to grasp branches and bark to stay firmly attached to the trees high above the canopy. In more recent years sugar gliders have grown in popularity throughout the world as exotic pets, with some having originated from Australia, and others from New Guinea. Currently depending on the state, the legality of keeping one of these native marsupials varies, with notably the large states of New South Wales and Queensland banning the practice.

Sugar gliders perched on a branch

Dingo

The dingo occupies something of a different position on this list, with the canine itself not actually being a native Australian species, despite what many Australians may think. For the unfamiliar, the dingo is a medium sized canine resembling something akin to a domestic dog, generally with a light ginger, tan, or dark coat of short fur. It is theorized that the dingo was actually brought over to Australia from southeast Asia some time around 8000 years ago, bearing a relatively close relation to ancient varieties of dogs found across New Guinea. Some have even attributed the arrival of the dingo to mainland Australia as one of the possible causes, if not certainly a contributing factor to the extinction of Australian animals such as the thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) on the Australian mainland.

Dingo at fraser island

Birds

Emu

One of the two iconic animals on Australia‘s coat of arms, the emu is one of the better known amongst Australia‘s native bird life. Found across Australia, the emu is the second largest bird in the world, second only to its African relative the ostrich. The emu sports a thick, shaggy brown coat of feathers, with a long neck, and thick scaly legs, and can often been found preening or grazing across Australia‘s vast bushland. Emu’s generally lead a solitary existence, though they come together during the breeding season, after which the father takes responsibility for the young until they are mature enough to fend for themselves. A strange fact pertaining to both the emu and kangaroo is that they are incapable of walking backwards, a fact which ties in with the narrative of coat of arms, with Australia never taking a step back. Fortunately the emu continues to remain stable across much of Australia, and is of least concern when compared to other Australian natives. To the amusement of many, Australia even once fought a war against its Emus in a someone comical event known as the ‘Emu War‘.

Emu in the outback of Australia.

 

Kookaburra

The subject of songs and folklore, the kookaburra is an iconic Australian bird, known best for its loud and lengthy call, sounding much like a long cacophonous laugh, of which the name ‘kookaburra’ is an onomatopoeia. Belonging to the kingfisher group of birds, the kookaburra is distinct in that its diet largely precludes fish entirely, not only that, but the species association with water is mostly absent. Australia‘s kookaburra has instead come to live more like a bird of prey, eating small mammals, lizards, insects, and even other birds young at times. There is also a northern variety of kookaburra which features vibrant blue wingtips and tail, despite the seeming relation, the two are known to actively compete for territory, suggesting a divergence some time ago. Today you are likely to see kookaburras across Australia, including in its larger cities’ parks and suburbs.

View of a laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) bird on a tree branch at Daisy Hill conservation Park in Brisbane, Queensland , Australia

Southern Cassowary

Sporting a vibrant colourful head, an enormous bony crest, and long thick scaled legs, the cassowary is an incredible bird, resembling something from an earlier era of time rather than most birds we expect to see today. Native to north-east Queensland and parts of New Guinea, the cassowary is one of the largest birds on earth, at a similar height to the emu, as well as being the second heaviest bird after the African ostrich. The cassowary has something of an unearned reputation when it comes to human interaction, with reports of attacks and violence causing many to fear the birds. In practice the majority of the time this has been attributed to humans interacting and feeding the birds, which then grow accustomed to feeding and chase people for more. It is thought that the cassowary is actually quite closely related with New Zealand’s iconic kiwi, with the two having split from a common ancestor some 40 million years ago.

Detail of Cassowary Bird

Cockatoo

Across Australia there are a huge variety of cockatoos, ranging from the exotic great black cockatoo, to more common sights such as the galah, or sulphur-crested cockatoo. Characterised by their raised crests and curved bills, cockatoos are some of the world’s most intelligent birds, being capable of incredible feats of cunning as well as mischief. The sulphur-crested cockatoo in particular is one of the most likely birds you’ll see on a tour of Australia, with a distribution across the north, and eastern coasts of Australia, and doing particularly well in city environments. They are quite large for parrots, reaching about 55 cm in length, with a large distinctive yellow crest atop their stark white body, they are also known to make an incredibly loud raucous call, which can be heard from a long distance.

A sulphur crested cockatoo showing off

Wedge-tailed Eagle

Found throughout Australia, including Tasmania, the wedge-tailed eagle is the continent’s largest bird of prey, with a wingspan up to 2.8 metres and body length over a metre, the wedge-tailed eagle is one of Australia‘s few apex predators. With a sharp hooked beak, and covered in thick brown and black feathers, the eagle is a distinctive sight, often spied in rural Australia scavenging road kill or soaring high overhead surveying the landscape. Like many other large birds of prey, the wedge-tailed eagle relies on its sense of sight to hunt, being able to pinpoint small movements from an incredible distance, as well as see in the ultraviolet spectrum. Generally these eagles will hunt prey such as small kangaroos, possums, wombats, and other birds, and at times they’ve even been known to even take down emus, particularly juveniles. In contemporary Australian culture the wedge-tailed eagle is used prominently on the symbols for the Australian Defence force, as well as the Royal Australian Air Force, and New South Wales Police.

Australian wedge tailed eagle flying in the skies above Central Victoria

Reptiles

Saltwater Crocodile

Found across Australia‘s northern coastal regions, the saltwater crocodile, or ‘saltie’ for short, is the largest of the world’s crocodiles, its evolutionary design much the same as it was 65 million years ago. Measuring around 6m in length, and weighing about a tonne, the saltwater crocodile is the apex predator of Australia‘s northern aquatic habitats, hunting with ambush tactics, and sporting the second strongest bite force of any animal on earth. What distinguishes the saltwater crocodile from many other species is its tendency to swim out into the open ocean, often riding currents long distances in search of new territory to claim. From here many follow rivers further inland, spreading far and wide across Australia‘s northern reaches. The saltwater crocodile is an opportunistic hunter, with its diet mostly consisting of whatever is available in the local environment, whether that be fish, birds, or even larger mammals like water buffalo. The ‘Saltie’ was once endangered across Australia following a culling program of the reptile back in the 1970s, fortunately since then the populations have mostly recovered, with Australia‘s crocodile population being amongst the healthiest.

Close up of saltwater crocodile as emerges from water with a toothy grin. The crocodile’s skin colourings and pattern camouflage the animal in the wild.

Goanna

Another of Australia‘s strange fauna, the goanna is a type of monitor lizard found everywhere throughout Australia, with the only exception being Tasmania. Depending on the environment, there are a huge varieties of Goanna you can find on a tour of Australia, with some of the largest reaching up to 2.5 meters, and the smallest at less than 70cm. Goanna’s are a carnivorous reptile, with rows of small sharp teeth and the ability to run quite quickly on the hind legs to close the distance with prey, or to flee from nearby threats. In the time of Australia‘s megafauna, the Goanna’s ancestor was one of Australia‘s apex predators, with the 7m long megalania found in Australia as recently as 50,000 years ago. The word ‘goanna’ is thought to be a derivative of ‘iguana’, brought by western settlers who had no conception of what exactly the monitor lizard was.

Goanna crawling on a log in the bush with his tongue sticking out

Frill-Necked Lizard

Otherwise known as the ‘Frilled Dragon’ or Chlamydosaurus, this lizard is found across Queensland, the Northern Territory, as well as throughout the Kimberley region. The lizard is quite large, measuring up to 85cm, and can generally be found in trees, hunting for insects of small invertebrates. It gets its unique name from its characteristic frill, which it can extend into a huge disk to intimidate predators, often times rearing up on its hind legs and opening its jaws to enhance this bewildering spectacle.

Frill-neck Lizard with frill open

Thorny Devil

Another strange and unique Aussie native, the thorny devil can be found throughout Australia‘s central and western deserts. Only a small lizard at about 20cm, the thorny devil makes up for its small size with its panoply of bizarre talents. Starting with its appearance, the devil is covered in spiky extrusions and spines all over its body, making it a difficult, and dangerous meal for any prospective predators. Add to this the fact that it has a fake ‘second head’ on the back of its neck, it makes it appear to observers like its always watching, and just in case this isn’t enough, the devil can camouflage itself with changing skin colour to blend in with the desert’s sands, and scrubland. The thorny devil gets most of its water through the deserts humidity, with its spines collecting moisture from the air and channeling it to the lizards mouth.

Thorny Devil in the Australian Outback

Snakes

Of all Australia‘s wildlife, snakes probably have the most infamous reputation, with several Australian snakes ranking amongst the deadliest, and even the most deadly in the world. However, this reputation is mostly undeserved, with death by snakebite being an incredibly rare occurrence, in fact, you’re more likely to die from horse or cow than these ‘deadly’ serpents. With over 170 species across the continent, Australia is full of snakes, with some of the more common such as the carpet python, green tree snake, or eastern brown snake, often being found close to, or in some of Australia‘s urban environments. Contrary to popular opinion, these snakes are rarely aggressive, and are far more likely to flee than attack. To see some of these up close, zoos and reptile parks across Australia area great way to see some of these iconic Aussie serpents up close.

Morelia viridis, commonly known as the green tree python, is a species of python found in New Guinea, islands in Indonesia, and Cape York Peninsula in Australia

Monotremes

Platypus

The Platypus is definitely among the weird and the wonderful when it comes to Australia‘s native wildlife, being one of the world’s two ‘Monotremes‘ a peculiar type of mammal which both lays eggs, and feeds milk to its young, as well as sporting a number of physiological differences with all other kinds of mammals. The platypus in particular confounded naturalists when it was first encountered by Europeans, convinced the animal could not be real, with its features resembling an odd mesh of duck, otter and beaver all thrown together. As Australian’s now know though, the platypus is simply a strange an incredible animal, with its bill able to sense its prey underwater through echolocation much like a dolphin, its soft fur providing insulation, and the males even having a venomous spur for defence on their hind limbs. The platypus can be found across the eastern extent of Australia, inhabiting ponds, creeks and other waterways, where it feeds on worms, insect larvae, and freshwater shellfish.

Tasmania , platypus eating worm

Echidna

Australia‘s second monotreme is the Echidna, found across Australia and Tasmania, the Echidna is also something of an evolutionary mishmash, with a short beak like a bird, long tongue like an anteater, spines like a hedgehog, a pouch like a kangaroo, as well as laying eggs. The echidna evolved from a similar aquatic ancestor as the platypus, though they’ve adapted to a life on land, mostly using their long sticky tongue to hunt insect larvae, ants, and termites. The echidna is a medium sized animal, weighing up to 7kg, and using its strong shovel shaped claws to dig out burrows, and crack into wood and mounds for termites and other insects. Interestingly, they have retained the electroreceptors of their ancestors, though on land this cannot be used to full effect. They are also still effective swimmers, able to use their long claws as something akin to paddles, to get across even deeper bodies of water. When feeling threatened, the echidna will roll up into a spiny ball, with its long spiny ‘hairs’ providing an excellent defence and deterrent for any would be predator.

An echidna searches the forest floor for termites and ants.

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