With the most unique wildlife on the planet, any Australia vacation will probably include getting an intimate view of some favorites. Nearly half of the country’s birds, and 87% of its mammals, are found only in Australia. Many mammals are marsupials—not completely developed at birth, and carried in a pouch on their mother’s belly while they nurse. Sunbathe on a beach and a kangaroo may hop by. Go for a late-night camera safari, and you may discover enchanting koalas high in eucalyptus branches. In the land down under, the unusual in wildlife is the norm. Be amazed!
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One of the largest surviving marsupials, kangaroos are native to Australia. (A marsupial is a mammal that’s not completely developed at birth and carried in a pouch on the mother’s belly.) “Kangaroo” is from an aboriginal word, gangurru. They have large powerful back legs, equally large feet that are ideal for jumping. They are, in fact, the only large animal to use hopping as their primary means of getting around. If pressed, they can hop as fast as 43 mph over a short distance. Because of their strength and speed, they have few predators.
Wallabies are the smallest member of the kangaroo family, and there are numerous species. (One even has a sharp nail at the end of its tail.) They range in size from 12 to 41 inches, and from 4 to 53 pounds. Wallaby young, like kangaroos, are called Joeys, and they also stay in their mothers’ pouches for several months. Even after they leave the pouch, when they sense danger, they jump back in. Their tails help them balance, and they can use it to prop themselves up and sit. They are herbivores—most of their diet is made up of native grasses and plants.
When you see the picture of a Koala bear, your mind immediately says, “Australia.” Koalas look like soft and fuzzy, but their fur feels more like thick, sheep’s wool. With opposable thumbs, rough pads on their feet, and good claws, their bodies are perfect for climbing trees and lounging on branches. (Oddly, they have two toes, fused as one, on their feet—they use it to comb their hair.) Koalas eat more than one pound of eucalyptus leaves per day, which doesn’t provide them with much energy. Because of this, they sleep 18 hours, or more, at a stretch, tucked inside the nooks of trees.
Australia is a paradise for people who love birds. There are 850 species, and 45% of them can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. The most gorgeous of all is the Gouldian Finch. They are seed-eaters who consume 35% of their body weight every day, which keeps them busy. The female lays 4 – 8 eggs—both parents brood them during the day, but only the female sits on the eggs during the night. After they hatch, both parents care for them. When it’s not breeding season, the Gouldian’s often fly with mixed flocks composed of 1,000 to 2,000 birds. Beauty on the wing.
It’s worth a visit to Rottnest Island, just off Perth, to get a glimpse of a quokka or three—they will make your heart happy. 10,000 quokkas live on the island and, if you’re patient, at least one will approach you. The helpless baby spends about six months in its mother’s pouch. If the baby, or joey, doesn’t survive the mother has others waiting in her womb, in a suspended state of development, as back-up. They are herbivores, can live off the fat stored in their tails, and they can go for one month without water. This is lucky—fresh water’s in short supply on Rottnest Island.
The platypus is an egg-laying mammal that’s native to Australia. When it was first encountered by Europeans in 1798, a sketch was sent to Great Britain. Scientists thought it was a hoax or that a Chinese taxidermist had put it together as a joke. They are one of the few venomous mammals—the males have a spur on the back of their hind feet that secretes venom, causing excruciating pain. The platypus also has “electroperception.” This is an ancient trait (sharks also have it) that allows them to sense their prey by detecting the muscular contractions of those around them. The platypus is, altogether, a miracle of nature.
The Tasmanian Devil
Tasmanian Devils are carnivorous animals once found on Australia’s mainland, but now they’re only on the island of Tasmania. The size of a small dog, Devils have stocky builds, black fur, a strong smell, they screech at night, and they’re ferocious eaters. Adult devils use the same dens for life, and those formerly used by a wombat are especially prized for their security. Some have used the same dens for generations—den security means survival of their pups. The young stay there with their mothers for six months. Tasmanian Devils are emblematic of Australia, and they are key to a healthy eco-system.
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