From the egg-laying mammals to thorn-studded lizards and desert-dwelling frogs, Australian animals are as bizarre as creatures get on this planet, which makes Australia an extraordinary safari holidays destination.
Sure, we have a fair share of iconic and instantly recognizable animals like the kangaroo, koala and cockatoos, but the majority of Australian native animals are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. And fair enough, more than 80% of Australia’s plants, mammals, reptiles and frogs are unique to Australia and do not occur anywhere else in the world. So what’s the story?
Mostly, because Australia has been isolated from all other landmasses for about 30 million years. Caught on an island continent adrift in the ocean, Australian animals evolved in isolation from the rest of the world.
There are three main groups of mammals currently living in the world: placentals, marsupials and monotremes and Australia has them all. Out of 379 species of mammals recorded in Australia, 2 are monotremes, 159 marsupials, and 218 are placentals (mostly bats, rodents and marine mammals).
It wouldn’t be practical to introduce all 379 mammals in a single post and still leave room for reptiles and amphibians, so here are some characteristic representatives from each group.
Egg-laying mammals are as strange as it gets and that’s what monotremes are. Not only do they lay eggs, but they also don’t have teats – the milk is excreted from many pores on the female’s belly. And it gets even more interesting…
When the English naturalists first saw a preserved skin of a platypus in 1799 they believed it to be a fake made of parts of different animals sewn together. You can hardly blame them. The semi-aquatic platypus has a broad bill of a duck, a flat tail of a beaver and webbed feet of an otter.
It is the only Australian mammal that is known to be venomous. Make platypus have venomous spurs on their back feet that they use in territorial disputes with other males.
Female platypus lay soft-shelled eggs in a specially constructed den where she incubates the eggs by curling around them and then feeds the hatchlings by excreting milk onto the fur on her belly.
Platypus feed on aquatic vertebrates that they detect in the murky streams with the aid of electroreceptors located on their snouts.
And if that’s not strange enough, it was recently discovered that platypus fluoresce – they glow in a bluish-green color under a black light.
Only slightly less odd than the platypus, the short-beaked echidna has spines like a porcupine, a beak like a bird, and a pouch like a kangaroo. Unlike the platypus, echidna lays a single egg into its pouch. Baby echidnas, once they are bug enough to leave their mum’s pouch are known as puggles and they are as cute as the name suggests.
Also known as a spiny anteater, echidna has a superbly elongated tongue – up to 17cm long, thats equipped with electro-receptors for detecting their prey.
Echidna’s breeding behaviour contributes to its status as one of the oddest Australian animals. When a female is ready to breed up to a dozen male echidnas line up nose to nose behind her forming a train. Trains can last for weeks at a time, with individual males dropping out and rejoining. In the end, the remaining males will push each other around until a single winner remains to breed with the female.
The animals that Australia is most known for are, no doubt, the marsupials. Marsupials come in all shapes and sizes in Australia from the stately Red kangaroo that weighs in at 90 kg to the tiny Long-tailed Planigale that weighs all of 4.3 grams as an adult.
Some of the most interesting but little-known Australian animals are the marsupial carnivores. Ironically, the most famous Australian carnivore is the extinct Tasmanian tiger. Here are some Australian marsupial carnivores that you probably never knew existed.
Probably named for is loud screech and aggressive feeding manners, the Tasmanian devil became the largest carnivorous marsupial in Australia when thylacine (aka Tasmanian tiger) became extinct in the 1930s. The devil’s distribution is limited to Australia’s island state of Tasmania where it is endangered – its population decimated by a contagious facial tumour disease.
An interesting fact about the Tasmanian devil is that it has the strongest bite in relation to its body mass among all terrestrial predators in the world. As nocturnal hunters of wallabies and pademelons, devils spend their days in dens, usually, those dug and abandoned by wombats.
Quoll is a nocturnal cat-like marsupial carnivore that preys on small mammals, birds, lizards, and frogs. It is in fact quoll’s penchant for snaking on frogs that contributes to its decline in Australia. Used to hunting frogs, quolls readily prey on the introduced cane toads naive to the facts that cane toads produce a toxin that’s deadly to Australian mammals.
Biologists recognize four species of quoll in Australia: western, eastern, northern and tiger quolls, all of which are in decline.
A curious fact about quolls is that while they are generally solitary animals, they use communal toilets that are usually located on rocky outcrops
The majority of Australia’s fearsome predators are only slightly bigger than a house mouse. Dunnarts, the hunters of beetles and crickets range in size from the chubby Julia Creek Dunnart that weighs up to 70 grams to the tiny Lesser Hairy-footed Dunnart weighing a measly 10 grams.
Dunnarts are similar to their larger cousins in that the females don’t have a true pouch. Instead, they have a fold of skin on their bellies for the newborn joeys to crawl into and attach themselves to a nipple.
Another tiny Australian carnivore is the Antechinus. There are 15 recognized species of antechinus in Australia and all are small, mouse-like grey or brown critters. But while they are small and drab they are far from being dull. Their reproductive strategy has been referred to as the Big Bang strategy.
On reaching sexual maturity at a few months of age, male antechinus goes into a mating frenzy. He mates with as many females as he can, in frenetic encounters that can each last up to 14 hours. At the end of such extraordinary burst of speed mating his body simply gives up and the little Casanova dies of sexual stress during his first and only mating season. Talking about going out with a bang!
The adorable numbat is an insectivorous marsupial that looks remarkably similar to Scrat – a character from Ice Age cartoons. Although numbats don’t eat acorns. They feed almost exclusively on termites, which they scoop out with their superbly elongated tongues.
In the past numbats were distributed across most of southern Australia, but now they are restricted to a few small endangered populations in Western Australia.
The numbat is the only marsupial that is active during the day and it spends most of its time looking for termites, retreating into its den at night. The dens are usually located in hollow logs or in burrows.
Omnivores are animals that eat both: plant and animal matter, like humans, for example. In Australia, there aren’t many omnivores, just one family – Peramelidae that contains Bilbies and Bandicoots.
The desert-dwelling bilby is one of the most charismatic Australian animals. It’s exceptionally long ears give it a rabbit-like appearance and it’s not uncommon to see chocolate bilbies in Australian confectionary stores, especially around the time of Easter.
At the time of the European conquest of Australia, two species of bilbies could be found. The lesser bilby is now extinct while the greater bilby is now endangered. One of the best places to see them in the wild is Currawinya National Park in Queensland.
Bilbies have one of the shortest pregnancies of any mammal on earth at just 14 days. They exit the mother’s pouch at three months and become sexually mature around six to eight months of age.
Bilbies are prolific diggers. They excavate elaborate burrow systems in their territories that they use to escape predators and the heat of the day.
Most of the iconic Australian animals belong to the group of hebivores: kangaroo, koala, wombat plus a few other creatures that you probably never heard of.
Possums are some of the most common animals in Australian cities. Brushtail and ringtail possums can even become a nuisance when they choose to nest in the roofs of suburban houses.
But there are also much less conspicuous possums in Australia, of the pygmy variety. You are unlikely to stumble upon eastern or western pygmy possums unless you are carrying out a fauna survey. These adorable tiny creatures look like mini Yodas with their huge eyes and massive ears.
The pygmy possums live mostly in the trees where they use their long prehensile tails like an extra limb that helps move swiftly between branches and even leap between trees.
Closely related to possums, gliders are the most acrobatic Australian animals. Thanks to the special membrane of skin called a patagium that extend between their front and back feet gliders are capable of gliding between covering distances of up to a 100 meters in the case of the greater glider. They can even change direction in mid-flight with the help of their long tails.
There six species of gliders in Australia, ranging in size from a 1.6 kg Greater glider to a 12 gram Feathertail glider. Their acrobatics require a fair bit of energy and when the food is scarce, Feathertail and Sugar Gluders are able to enter torpor – a state similar to hibernation in bears.
In the world of wildlife celebrities, koala is even more famous than the wombat, to whom it is closely related. Looking like a surprised teddy bear, koala is no more a bear than the wombat is.
A connoisseur of eucalypt leaves that are extremely difficult to digest, koala is all about preserving the energy. It sleeps for about 20 hours a day and spends the remaining four hours eating as many eucalypt leaves at it can since it can only absorb about 25% of the nutrients from the leaves. No wonder koalas have a rather lethargic demeanor.
And here’s something you probably didn’t know – young koalas eat their mum’s droppings for a few weeks before they can start eating eucalypt leaves. The leaves are toxic to most mammals, so the joeys have to injest the micro organisms from their mothers intestine before they can digest the leaves.
Here is an animal that needs no introduction. Looking like a stocky short-legged bear that walks at an unhurried waddle, wombat is one of the most well-known Australian animal. Although, not many people realize that this clumsy marsupial can ran at up to 40 kilometers an hour.
Prolific diggers, wombats construct elaborate burrow systems with multiple entrances and long tunnels. They use their powerful claws to dig the initial opening and then lie on their side to dig the walls of the burrow. And because wombat burrows are quite large, they are often used by all kinds of other animals once wombats abandon them.
The most intriguing thing about wombats, however, is their cube-shaped poop usually deposited at prominent locations. The unusual shape of wombats scat is due to their slow digestion and the workings of their digestive tract. The Bush Heritage Australia website explains it well: “Wombats have a very long digestive process that normally takes 14 to 18 days. It has a very long digestive tract, to absorb the most nutrients and water possible, which means their digestive matter is very dry and compacted”.
Kangaroo is as Australian as it gets. It is an instantly recognizable symbol of Australia, and together with an emu, a national animal of Australia. The term kangaroo refers to the three largest macropods, while the smaller members of the family are called wallabies. There is also a Wallaroo – a macropod of an intermediate size between a kangaroo and a wallaby, and tree kangaroos that occur only in the rainforests of north-eastern Queensland.
The red kangaroo is the largest marsupial on earth and can hop at 56 kilometers an hour. The two species of grey kangaroos – Eastern grey and Western grey are only marginally smaller.
Female kangaroos are almost permanently pregnant. As soon as a joey is borne and enters the pouch, the female will mate and fall pregnant again. However, in times of drought when food is scarce, female kangaroo can freeze the development of the embryo in a process known as embryonic diapause.
Because they are large and often active during the daylight hours, kangaroo is not difficult to see in Australia. With a bit of determination, you can even see Eastern grey kangaroos in Sydney.
The smaller members of the Macropodidae family, wallabies, come in all shapes and sizes. There are brush wallabies, rock wallabies, hare-wallabies, nailtail wallabies and a short-tailed scrub wallaby or quokka.
Rock wallabies include one of the most handsome macropods – the yellow-footed rock wallaby. These incredibly agile wallabies live on the rocky slopes of Flinders Ranges National Park.
Of the two hare-wallabies, the Rufous hare-wallaby or Mala is most charismatic. Yet its adorable cotton candy-like looks didn’t save it from going extinct on the Australian mainland. Today Mala are restricted to Bernier and Dorre Islands in Western Australia.
Known as the happiest animal on earth, Quokka is also restricted to the islands off the coast of Western Australia, particularly Rottenest Island and a few fragmented populations on the mainland. One of their most interesting adaptations to eating tough Australian vegetation is to swallow their food while then regurgitate it and eat it again.
Bettongs are one of the most underrated groups of Australian mammals, barely known by the general public even in Australia. Yet these rabbit-sized small wallabies are possibly the most important ecosystem engenders on the continent. Once widespread across Australia bettong populations have been reduced to just a few colonies and captive populations in fenced off reserves, like AWC’s Scotia sanctuary.
The reason bettongs are important to Australian ecosystems lies in their refined tastes – more than 50% of their diet is made up of truffles. Truffles have been compared to underground cacti – they hold precious water reserves and exchange nutrients with the roots of trees with which they associate.
To get to the truffles, bettongs can dig more than 100 teacup-shaped holes in the soil in one night. These holes collect precious rainwater that otherwise would be lost as runoff. This tree-truffle-bettong relationship has been crucial to ecosystem health in Australia for thousands of years.
Australian Placental Mammals
In comparison to the marsupials and monotremes, Dingo is a relatively recent arrival in Australia. The earliest dingo fossil on the continent dates to 3,450 years ago. It is believed to be an ancient breed of a domestic dog, probably brought to Australia by Asian seafarers about 4,000 years ago.
It is Australia’s largest extant terrestrial predator capable of taking down prey as large as an adult red kangaroo. Like most dogs, dingos live in packs that usually consist of a breeding pair, cubs from the current litter and occasionally adult cubs from the previous litter.
When the European settlers arrived in Australia, they were not too keen on having their sheep killed by dingos, so they erected one of the longest man-made structure in the world – the dingo fence. Stretching 5,614 kilometres (3,488 mi), the dingo fence cuts across the south-eastern part of the continent separating the relatively fertile section of Australia from the more arid lands to the west and to the north. So if you are keen to see a dingo in the wild, head on a road trip to the Northern Territory, where they are quite common.
No one knows how rodents made their way from Asia to Australia about 8 million years ago, given that they are not prone to long distance swimming feats. One scientist proposed that it could’ve been a single pregnant female that floated over aboard a coconut palm and gave rise to rodents in Australia. All Australian native rodents belong to the same family – Muridae, so it is quite likely that they evolved from the same maverick species.
Over 8 million years, rodents diversified in Australia into 60 different species, filling a diverse range of ecological niches. There are fish-eating water rats, desert-dwelling hopping mice, tree rats, and ground rats that specialize in building huge nests from dry sticks and twigs.
Given their small size and nocturnal habits, rodents are not easy to spot in the wild. But if you are visiting Uluru, head to the rock at dusk and you might spot Spinifex hopping mice looking for leftover scraps from the day’s tourist activities.
Another huge group of Australian mammals are bats. With 90 recognized species, bats represent more that 20% of Australian mammal species. There are two broad kinds of bats – the large fruit-eating megabats, often referred to as flying foxes and the small insect-hunting microbats that use echolocation to find their prey and often have odd structures on their faces that aid them in emitting and receiving high frequency sounds.
The most conspicuous megabats in Australia are the grey-headed flying foxes. They congregate in huge colonies in Sydney and can be seen flying over the city at dusk as they travel from their roosting grounds to their feeding spots.
Microbats are much harder to see. At best you’ll catch glimpses of them as they dart between the tree crowns. They usually Roos inside tree hollows, in caves or in abandoned man-made structures. Scientists studying microbats use a bat detector – a gadget that translated the high frequency emitted by the bats into the lower frequency sounds that humans can hear. Here is a sample of a bat sound translated by a bat detector.
Unlike the terrestrial Australian animals that are confined to the continent, many of the marine mammals living in Australian waters are transient visitors. At least 45 species of whales and dolphins are found in Australian waters. Some of the most well-known migrants are the Humpback whales that cruise along Australian eastern and western coastlines on their epic migrations between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and their breeding sites in the tropical waters.
There are at least 9 species of seals found in Australia. The endangered Australian sea lions can be viewed at Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island. And if you are looking for a more up close and personal encounter, you can go snorkeling with Australian fur seals in Narooma.
Introduced animals are a contentious subject in Australia. Many species have been introduced on the continent by the early European settlers. There are horses, camels, foxes and cats, to name a few, living all across Australia today. Many of these animals are considered threats to the native Australian fauna and consequently targeted by eradication campaigns.
Cats, for example, were released in their thousands about 200 years ago, to combat the spread of rabbits that were shortsightedly introduced by the settlers in the mid ninetieth century and were causing widespread economic damage. Now, 100 years later, cats are seen as one of the greatest threats to Australian native animals and exterminated in their thousands.
Australian Reptiles and Amphibians
There are roughly twice as many reptile species in Australia than there are mammals. And out of 869 Australian reptile species, about 93 percent are unique to the continent.
There are two species of crocodiles in Australia: saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. The saltwater crocodile, affectionately known as salty, is by far the more formidable of the two. It is the largest living reptile with males reaching 6 meters and 1,300 kg. Although the largest salty ever shot was 8.6 meters long.
Crocodiles are ambush predators. They stay concealed under water and wait for their prey to approach them. The saltwater crocodile is capable of overpowering virtually any animal by pulling it in a “death roll”. This killing technique is as terrifying as it sounds. Once the crocodile has its prey in its jaws it begins to violently spin it underwater so that the prey becomes completely disoriented and drowns.
Despite their predatory prowess, saltwater crocodiles were hunted almost to extinction for their skin in the 1970s. Thankfully, after decades of conservation, their population has recovered and you can easily see saltwater crocodiles in Kakadu National Park. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid approaching the water’s edge and if you feel tempted to go for a swim – find a swimming pool.
Australia has a reputation for having the most venomous snakes the world. However, while more than a half of Australian snakes are venomous (around 100 out of 170 species), only 12 of them could be potentially lethal to people, and most of them are quite shy and would try to avoid encounters with people.
Australian venomous snakes
Australia’s Inland taipan is the most venomous snake in the world. A single doze of its venom is enough to kill at least 100 humans. Thankfully, inland taipan is quite a shy animal and will usually try to retreat to avoid trouble. It occurs in the remote semi-arid region of NSW and seldom encounters people.
Other dangerously venomous snakes include mulga or king brown snake, eastern brown snake, western brown snake, tiger snake, coastal taipan, lowlands copperhead, small-eyed snake, common death adder, and red-bellied black snake. Snakes, of course can be difficult to identify in the field, so If you come across any snake in the bush, simply walk the other way.
Australia is home to almost half of the world’s pythons (14 species out of 31). And while pythons often terrify people by their formidable size, they are neither venomous nor aggressive. They do however have plenty of sharp teeth to defend themselves with if needed.
There are over 700 species of lizards unique to Australia, more than in any other country in the world. They are divided into five families: dragons, monitors (known locally as goannas), geckos, skinks, and legless lizards.
Yes, there are real life dragons in Australia. We have bearded dragons, military dragons, water dragons, rock dragons, jacky dragons, but none are as legendary as the thorny devil.
These extraordinary lizards are some of the most incredible Australian desert animals. Their bodies are covered in conical spikes, they have a false head to confuse predators and they can absorb water by simply standing in a puddle. As far as odd Australian animals go, the thorny devil is as unexpected as a reptile can get.
Perhaps the most famous monitor lizard is Indonesia’s Komodo Dragon, which can grow up to 3m long.
Monitors are the largest lizards in the world and Australia used to be home to a giant, Megalania, that was twice the size of the Komodo dragon. Today, the biggest monitor lizard in Australia is the magnificent Perentie that at 2 meters is the fourth largest lizard in the world.
But while Perentie inhabits the arid center of the continent, the lace monitor or tree goanna is a common site is the forested areas around Sydney.
An interesting thing about goannas is that occasionally they would stand on their hind legs to check out their environment or to frighten their opponent. A 2-meter long lizard standing upright is a sight to remember.
With their huge eyes and large toes, geckos are perhaps the most handsome group of lizards. They are unique among lizards in their vocalizations. While most of them are not as loud as Thailand’s tokay, the majority of geckos produce chirping or clicking sounds to communicate.
As many geckos are nocturnal they are not as easy to spot as the other lizards. Some species, like leaf-tailed geckos, have evolved such excellent camouflage that you probably won’t notice them even if you are looking right at them.
Some of the most charismatic geckos are the knob-tailed geckos. They belong to the family of barking geckos which means that on top of their good looks they also have an easily recognizable call that sounds like a dog bark.
Typically I would consider skinks the least interesting group of reptiles, but not when it comes to Australian skins. Like most animals in Australia, our skins are quite unique. Some of our skinks, the bluetongues, grow to 40 centimetres and have blue tongues, others are 70 centimetre-long giants, like the mullet skink, some are aggressive nocturnal desert hunters, like the sand swimmers, and others are ancient-looking slow-moving desert dwellers like the shingleback.
Even the tiny garden skins are not as boring as they may appear. During the breeding season, these usually shy creatures aggressively attack each other in defence of their territories. It is not uncommon to see several skinks locked together in a melee all holding on to each other. Life’s a battle for the tiny reptiles.
Here is a creature I never knew existed. These gentle creatures look like small snakes, but they are lizards who lost their limbs in the process of evolution. It is possible to tell the legless lizards from snakes, but you’ll need to have a really good look, which would not be a good idea if the animal you are looking at is in fact a snake.
The distinguishing features of legless lizards are: the presence of eyelids and external ear openings, notched rather than forked tongue, and a very long tail in comparison to a snake’ long body and short tail. In some species, you can see the residual flaps in place where the limbs would’ve been.
Australian terrestrial frogs have come up with some unexpected adaptations for living in arid conditions. One group of frogs spend a part of their lives about a meter underground. These burrowing amphibians can spend years in their burrows and it takes heavy rains to soak up the soil to encourage them to emerge and reproduce.
Another fascinating amphibian is the pouched frog. Australia is known for its marsupial mammals, but here is a frog that follows a similar reproductive strategy. A female pouched frog lays eggs on the ground, usually under logs or in the leaf litter. And this is where her role ends. It is the male pouched frog that has flaps of skin or pouches on both sides of his body designed for the newly-hatched tadpoles to wriggle into. The tadpoles of pouched frog develop in the male’s pouches (they don’t need water) and emerge as fully formed little frogs.
Tree frogs generally prefer more humid environments. They are particularly abundant in coastal areas. One of Australia’s best-known tree frog is the Green tree frog – a large animal reaching more than 10 centimetres in length. This frog is quite docile and seems to like living near or in human houses. They are often found in bathrooms or laundries catching insects attracted to the lights.
These frogs have a rather loud croaking call, which becomes even louder when the frogs make themselves at home in the pipes and water tanks which act as amplifiers of their low ‘brawk, brawk, brawk‘. Despite the volume of their call, green tree frogs are popular exotic pets due to their human-friendly behaviour and phlegmatic temper.
While not as affected by Australia’s isolation as mammals and reptiles, Australia’s birds are also very unique. For starters, most birds in the world can trace their lineage to Australia, meaning that their ancestors have evolved here. Consequently, Australia is home to 10% of the world’s birds. And out of about 830 Australian bird species 45% are unique to the continent. Here are some of our most unusual and unique birds.
The emu is the most iconic bird of the Australian Outback and the world’s second-largest bird after its African cousin – the ostrich. Apart from their looks, the most interesting thing about emus is their breeding behaviour. It’s almost the exact opposite strategy to all other birds.
The female emu mates with different males and lays several clutches of eggs. And that’s about it for her part. It is the male who incubates the eggs, on its own, barely eating or drinking until the eggs hatch, and loosing a lot of weight in the process.
Once the eggs hatch the male emu guards his chicks with such vigour that he becomes one of the most dangerous creatures in the Australian bush, even for humans. So if you come across an emu in the bush, always check whether he has little stripy chicks following him. And if he does, stay well away.
Marginally smaller than an emu, cassowary is Australia’s heaviest bird. It can weigh up to 76kg! And if there ever was a bird that still looked like a feathered dinosaur, this is it. Both sexes have a large casque on top of their heads and the scientists are not quite sure what they are for.
Like the emus, cassowary females court the males, lay a clutch of eggs, and promptly walk away to court another male and lay another clutch. The male dutifully incubates the eggs for about 50 days, then protects the chicks for about a year, after which he chases them away.
Australia is home to one-sixth of the world’s parrots. Out of 330 parrot species that inhabit our planet, 56 are found in Australia. With their stunning looks and entertaining behaviour, parrots are some of the most famous Australian birds.
Australia’s geographic isolation allowed the parrots to diversify into a huge array of species and to colonize every corner of the continent in the absence of other large seed-eating birds. As a result, parrots are found in most Australian habitats from the arid inland regions to the forested coast. You can even see a good variety of parrots in Sydney.
Most parrots are specialist seed-eaters – their powerful short beaks are well suited for tearing apart seedpods and nuts. Although some species, like lorikeets, feed primarily on nectar and pollen.
Another famous Australian is the superb lyrebird. Not much to look at outside of the breeding season, the superb lyrebird is known for having one of the most elaborate, the most complex and the most beautiful calls in the world, according to David Attenborough.
About 80% of the male’s song consists of expert mimicry. It can incorporate virtually any sounds from its environment into its song, including the calls of other birds, the sound of a clicking camera, dog’s bark, car alarm, or the noise of a chainsaw. Here is an excellent video by BBC Wildlife of a performing male superb lyrebird.
This list only just scrapes the surface, but it gives you a sense of just how wonderfully odd Australian animals are. If you are planning a trip down under try to include one of Australia’s wildlife hotspots to see some of our unusual creatures in their natural habitat.