Last year when I was in grade 6, I was learning about the classifications of living beings. My class got an assignment to make up a new animal by mixing the different animal classes, and create it using modeling clay. When we presented them, there were mammal-birds, fish-amphibians, and my friend and I made a reptile-fish-insect-bird. I wished that they could come true, but I never imagined that animals as bizarre as these actually existed. Until I went to Australia that is. See if you can guess this animal: It has brown fur, a wide, flat tail similar to a beaver’s, webbed feet, has a big beak like a duck, and males have spurs on their hind legs connected to venom glands. They lay eggs, but mothers feed their young milk and carry them in a pouch on their belly. They eat shrimp and worms. They’re approximately 35 centimetres long and live in murky rivers in eastern and southern Australia. Make your guess now…
It’s the platypus. They are one of only five species in a branch of the order of mammals called monotremes. They have fur and feed their young milk like all other mammals, but lay eggs and have a beak, characteristics more like birds. And the venomous spur on males seems more like a characteristic of a reptile or fish.
The four other kinds of monotremes in the world are all types of echidnas. They live only on land, and their beak is short and skinny. They have spines on their back like a hedgehog and eat ants and termites, giving them their other name, spiny anteaters. Males do have spurs on their hind legs, but they no longer inject venom. They live in Australia and in New Guinea, which makes sense because the two islands were once connected when the sea level was very low during the last Ice Age.
Australia’s animals are so unique because they evolved in isolation for so many years. Bigger, stronger and smarter animals that evolved on other continents thrived and spread around the world, but never made it to Australia, so the misfits are the only ones. We went to 3 wildlife parks in and around Cairns and saw lots of these awesome creatures.
All native species of land mammals in Australia belong to the marsupial “infraclass”, which means babies are born very small and undeveloped and their mother carries them in a pouch for the first part of their life. Baby marsupials living in their mother’s pouch are called joeys. Dingoes aren’t marsupials and are often considered native to Australia, but they got there later than the rest.
Australia’s most well known animal is the kangaroo. They’re a kind of macropod, which is a group of marsupials. It seems like all kinds of macropods have the same body shape, but can be completely different sizes. The biggest is the red kangaroo, which can be the same size as an average adult human. Going down the list in size, there’s the grey kangaroo, many different species of wallaroo, wallaby, tree kangaroo, pademelon, potoroo, and so on. The smallest is about the size of a rabbit! We went to a wildlife habitat in a place called Port Douglas north of Cairns. We saw a lot of these kinds of animals, and even got to feed and pet the wallabies!
These animals also have really strong tails, so they’re like tripods. My mom came up with this expression: “The wallaby isn’t wobbly!”
There are lots of other kinds of marsupials too. I definitely won’t name them all, but my favourites are tasmanian devils, possums, wombats, and of course, koalas. They’re often called koala bears, but have absolutely no relation to bears. They sleep for 18 to 22 hours a day on average and eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves.
An exception to the marsupial rule is the flying fox, for they aren’t marsupials but are mammals and are native to Australia. We saw tons flying over us every night.
Many kinds of reptiles live in Australia, both big and small. There are tiny geckos, frogs, snakes, turtles, lizards, and 2 kinds of crocodiles. The freshwater crocs are the smallest of all crocodilians, but the estuarine crocs are the world’s largest.
Australia also has the huge cane toad, a terrible invasive species that was introduced around the year 1900 to eat the cane beetle that was eating all the sugarcane. It didn’t eat the beetle, but with no predators, it spread like crazy across northern Queensland.
There are tons of deadly animals in Australia. There are the crocodiles and sharks of course, and lots of venomous spiders and snakes, but we didn’t get all cuddly with them like we did with the koalas!
And I haven’t even mentioned the birds. Australia has the world’s 2nd and 3rd biggest birds, the emu and the cassowary. We saw a cassowary at a park in Port Douglas.
Cassowaries are critically endangered because of destruction of habitat and because of being hit by cars. There are lots of speed bumps and signs saying “slow for cassowaries”. There are fewer than 1000 of them left in the wild.
There are so many other birds too.
And this is my favourite bird of them all, the tawny frogmouth. I call it the eternally stunned bird.
Now, I’ll give you a little Australian animal quiz. Keep your guesses in your head and the answers will be under the quiz.
Q1:What do the kangaroo and the emu have in common?:
a) they can both jump twice their height
b) they both have a layer of eyelid to act as sunglasses
c) neither of them can walk backwards
d) neither of them have taste buds on their tongue
Q2: How long can male estuarine crocodiles grow up to be?
a) 2 metres
b) 5 metres
c) 7 metres
Q3: Why do koalas sleep for 18 to 22 hours a day?
a) because they don’t get much energy from their food
b) because their eyes are very sensitive to light
c) because they need to save energy for catching insects to eat
d) because they need to camouflage from predators like the tree kangaroo
Q4: Why are cassowaries so important to the regeneration of the rainforest?
a) because when they walk, their big claws churn and soften the soil, making it easier for plants to grow
b) because they eat fruit and spread the seeds by pooping them out
c) because they eat cane toads, which are invasive to the rainforest
d) because when they moult their feathers, they give nutrients to the soil
Q5: Which of these characteristics do kangaroos and wallabies have but koalas, wombats and tasmanian devils don’t?
a) they have tails
b) they only have 1 stomach
c) they have venomous spurs on their hind legs
d) the opening to their pouch faces up
Now, I’ll give you the answers so you can see how you did.
The answer to Question 1 is c). neither the kangaroo nor the emu have the ability to walk backwards. They can both jump high, but not twice their height! They are also the animals holding up the crest on Australia’s Coat of Arms.
Question 2’s answer is c). Male estuarine crocodiles can grow up to a whopping 7 metres long! That’s the length of 4 adult humans lying down! Unfortunately, because of trophy hunting, the gene pool that makes males grow that big has been almost completely wiped out. An average full grown male is about 4 metres long, and females only get to be about 1.5 metres long. Just make sure you don’t go swimming in any estuaries in Australia!
If you answered a) on Question 3, you’re right. Like I said earlier, koalas eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves. They don’t contain many nutrients, and in the heat of Australia, they use up their energy really fast, so they can’t afford to move much, and the only time they come down from their tree is either to get to another tree, or to go drink water. And by the way, the tree kangaroo isn’t a carnivore!
The answer to question 4 is b). Cassowaries eat the fruit and berries from trees, and they travel quite long distances through the rainforest. They spread the seeds when they poop them out, and the poop also fertilizes the seedlings and helps them grow. But because the cassowary population is going down, the rainforest isn’t regenerating as well.
And finally, the answer to Question 5 is d). The marsupials that I named second in the question have pouches that face down, a bit towards their mother’s bottom! But it makes sense, seeing as they spend their time more horizontal to the ground, so it wouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of the joey falling out, and it makes it easier for the joey to get into the pouch when it’s born. All marsupials have 1 stomach only, and the venomous spurs are only on male platypuses.
If you like, you can tell me how you did on the quiz in the comments.
So, I won’t blame you if you tell me my reptile-fish-insect-bird will never exist, but after seeing how strange animals can exist in Australia, why not?