If you visit Australia, you’ll see lots of animals that you won’t find in other countries. Some of Australia’s animals are dangerous – there are over 100 different species of poisonous snakes and there are lots of crocodiles too. The reason why Australian animals are so different than in other countries is because Australia has been an island for millions of years. This is why the animals here evolved differently.
A kangaroo is often the first thing people think of when they hear the word “Australia”. There is a legend that Captain Cook, one of the first Europeans who sailed to Australia, asked somebody what it was. He had never seen an animal like this before. The reply: “I don’t know.” He misheard this as “kangaroo” and that, so the legend says, is where the name comes from. But of course, this is only a legend. Actually the word comes from the Aboriginal word gungurru for the grey kangaroo.
Kangaroos are marsupials. Marsupials give birth to undeveloped young, which complete their development inside their mother’s pouch. A pouch is a sort of pocket in the skin.
When a baby kangaroo, or joey, is born, it weighs only 2 grams. It climbs up its mother’s belly and into her pouch. The mother can’t touch it because it is so tiny. The joey then grows in the mother’s pouch and stays there for about nine months.
Kangaroos get quite big. The red kangaroo, for example, can weigh up to 90 kg. They can also hop up to 3 m high and 9 m long at a speed of 70 km per hour!
Would you like to try a kangaroo fillet, steak or sausage? The meat looks and tastes a bit like beef. You can find it in many Australian supermarkets or restaurants.
Don’t call koalas “koala bears” because they’re not really bears. Like the kangaroo, they belong to a family of animals called marsupials. Koalas are fussy eaters. They only eat eucalyptus leaves and a bit of fruit. That’s why you can’t find them in European zoos. Eucalyptus leaves contain 50% water – so the koalas don’t get much energy by their food. They try to save their energy by sleeping 19 hours a day and always look sleepy – sometimes even drunk.
Koalas have sharp claws to climb trees and – like people – they have fingerprints.
The word koala is Aboriginal for “no drink”. This name came about because koalas hardly ever go down to the ground for water as they get most of it from the eucalypt leaves that they eat.
Another marsupial family member is the wombat. They have pouches for their young, like kangaroos, but on the back rather than the front. Wombats weigh up to 40 kilograms and are one of the largest animals in the world that make tunnels or holes in the ground. Their tunnel systems can be up to 30 metres long. During the day they stay underground and save water and energy. They also use their behind for protection: when they are afraid they will go into a hole and block it with their bottom. If you look at the photo you’ll think wombats are slow and clumsy, but they are able to run at 40 km/h over short distances. And a German professor found out that wombats have the best-developed brain of any marsupial and are quick learners.
Dingoes are wild dogs and can be found all over Australia. They live in sandy deserts and all kinds of forests and hunt other animals. Dingoes eat almost everything: reptiles, mice or other small animals, sheep, rabbits, insects, plants, sometimes even kangaroos!
Farmers don’t like the dingoes because they hunt and kill their sheep – so they say. They built a 3,307 mile long fence to keep dingoes out of south-eastern Australia.
Dingoes don’t bark. Pure dingoes are becoming rare in some areas because they often mate with house dogs. Usually they hunt alone for their food, but sometimes families hunt as a group. A dingo pair stays together for life.
It is not allowed to feed dingoes, because they should stay away from humans. There have been some cases in the past where dingoes have attacked children.
Interesting fact: dingo mothers eat food and then spit it out later for their young. Yuck!
Pythons belong to the most dangerous snakes, but normally they choose to escape and only attack when they are threatened. They will grow up to three metres long and eat mice, rats and other small animals. There are different species – the carpet python, for example is non-venomous, but has 50 to 60 very sharp teeth. They can eat whole animals that are much bigger than themselves. Some pythons are good climbers and spend lots of time on trees. Others, like the water python, live in swamps, rivers and billabongs (billabong is an Australian word for lakes that are formed when the rivers have lots of water in the rainy season).
There are two kinds of crocodiles in Australia: The saltwater crocodile and the freshwater crocodile. Both live in the hot, tropical northern part of the continent. The saltwater crocodile is the biggest and the heaviest reptile in the world and one of the most dangerous of all the crocodile family. It grows to between 4 and 7 metres long and it can become very old – it is thought that they live up to 70 to 100 years.
The freshwater crocodile is smaller and not as dangerous as the saltwater crocodile and can only live in fresh or slight salty water. The saltwater crocodile can survive in both types of water. Saltwater crocs lay eggs in nests of vegetation. Freshwater crocs lay their eggs in sand. Freshwater crocs teeth are shaped more like needles. And saltwater crocs reproduce in the wet season while freshwater crocs reproduce in the dry season.
Don’t confuse crocodiles with alligators. They look similar, but alligators have a shorter and rounder snout.
Crocodiles communicate with each other with special sounds. The young call to the adults when they are in danger and make lots of noise while they are being fed.
Would you like to try crocodile meat? Some people say it tastes like a mixture of chicken and crab meat.
Interesting fact: In some species of crocodiles the temperature of the water will determine the sex of the children! If the egg is kept at 31.6 degrees Celsius, it will be male. Hotter or colder it will be a female.
Some of the most interesting creatures are also the most dangerous. The redback spider, for example, belongs to the same family as the black widow spider. Like its cousin, the redback spider’s bite can kill a human, especially children and elderly people. But don’t worry too much about it – redback spiders are not aggressive and rarely leave the web. They will only attack you when they think that they’re in danger and feel threatened.
The females not only grow to be a lot bigger than the males, they also live a lot longer. Why? Because females often eat the males! The average female can live up to three years, whereas a male can’t hope to live longer than 7 months.
Interesting fact: According to statistics you are more likely to be killed by a cork from a champagne bottle than from a poisonous spider bite.
Another animal many are scared of is the shark. Australian waters are full of lots of different species. One of the most famous ones is the Great White Shark. They are between 3.5 to 5 metres long, and weigh about 1,300 kg. The females are large than males. The Great White Sharks have 2,800 teeth in their mouth! They need these sharp teeth because they feed on other fish. Sometimes they attack other sharks or even small whales. Sharks have an amazing sense of smell and can pick up blood in water a long way away. This helps them to find their food.
Interesting fact: Great white sharks can go three months without eating!
One of Australia’s most famous animals is the kookaburra. Kookaburras have many names, such as “kookys” and “laughing Jack”. This name comes from the sound it makes, which sounds like a human laugh! The first settlers in Australia didn’t like these birds because they thought they were laughing at them. Kookaburras are very faithful. When they find a mate, they may stay together for up to 20 years.
We normally think of penguins as living in colder parts of the world, but Australia is known to have a great many species of penguin, of which the most common is the “fairy penguin”.
They’re the smallest species of penguins, growing only 30 cm tall and weighing about a kilo.
Their scientific name is “Eudyptula minor”. This means good little diver and is a great description for this penguin. Little penguins spend their days out at sea in groups and in the evening they come back to the land. When they are on land they are very noisy. Fairy penguins eat small fish and plankton. Because they are so small, the fairy penguins have lots of enemies: sharks and whales, big sea birds, but also foxes and cats who steal their young to eat. And there are man-made problems like pollution, oil spills, plastic or road kills.
Like penguins, emus can’t fly, but have many other abilities. For example, an emu has very long legs and can run for long periods of time over hundreds of kilometres and reaches speeds of up to 50 km/h. Like fairy penguins, they are excellent swimmers, but grow to be a lot larger: up to 2 metres and 50 kilos. They eat plants and insects and usually live alone, except during mating season. During this time it makes calls you can hear up to 2 km away. When they find a mate, they lay dark green eggs in a nest that can be up to 1.5 metres wide. The male emu sits on the eggs to keep them warm and the eggs will hatch after 8 weeks.
Male and females Emus look similar, but the female is usually larger.
Interesting fact: Both the emu and kangaroo are used as symbols of Australia. Why? As both kangaroos and emus can’t move backwards, they represent progress made in Australia.
Another species is the Australian Pelican. These are very big birds with a large wingspan (2.5–3.4 metres). Although they’re so big and weigh up to 8 kilos, they can fly because their skeleton is very light (10% of their weight).
It is fantastic to see a pelican take off, running across the water to build up speed. It has been reported that Australian pelicans have reached a height of 3,000 metres. An interesting fact about the Australian Pelican is that it only feeds one chick. If a pelican lays two eggs and one of the babies is larger, then the pelican will feed the larger and the smaller chick will be left to die. It is their way of guaranteeing the survival of the stronger chick. The food that they get is fish, fish and more fish.