Tag Archives: wildlife

Kangaroos in the Outback

While I find koalas interesting, the Aussie animals I love most are kangaroos and wallabies. Such remarkable creatures. I’ve discovered a splendid BBC series on kangaroos in particular, and I thought it worth sharing. Note that a group of kangaroos is generally referred to as a mob, and if you listened to the video I posted last January about magpies, you’ll recognize their caroling in the background of this video.

Clearly, it’s not easy being a ‘roo in the back of beyond.

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Tasmanian devils

Okay—here’s the one you’ve been waiting for: the Tasmanian devil. Echidnas and wallabies are all well and good, but it was the Tasmanian devil that we grew up watching in cartoons. While the whirling of the cartoon character is entirely fictional, the snarling/growling sound is anchored in reality—though real Tasmanian devils sound much worse than the cartoon, adding to the snarling and growling a whole range of barking, snorting, and screaming.

Tasmanian devils, like almost all other Australian mammals, are marsupials—they carry their young in pouches. Like the koala and wombat, the Tasmanian devil has a rear-facing pouch. As with other marsupials, the pouch-dwellers are called joeys. However, in devils, the whole early life experience is a bit rougher than it is for most other marsupials. Mom bears up to 50 babies but has only four teats. The tiny newborns have to crawl into the pouch and compete for one of the four teats, to which they attach until weaned. The others just die. After six months, the babies are on their own. If they manage to live to the end of the first year, they’ll probably enjoy a full life—which for a devil in the wild is from five to eight years.

Tassie devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials, even though they are only about the size of small dog, and they’re not aggressive animals—unless food is involved. Devils are solitary creatures, but more than one might approach the same carcass (they are primarily scavengers), and the hideous shrieking, screaming, and snarling is how they establish dominance when feeding. The devil has sharp teeth and strong jaws and can deliver a tremendously powerful bite, so it’s not all sound and fury. You don’t want to come between a devil and his dinner.

Devils are muscular and quite powerful for their size. Among marsupials, they are odd for having front legs that are slightly longer than their back legs. Nocturnal hunters, these curious, high-energy animals will travel as much as 10 miles a night in search of food. Because they will eat anything, bones and all, no matter how rotten, they are great at keeping the countryside tidy.

As the name suggests, Tasmanian devils are found in Tasmania, but there was a time when they were abundant on the mainland. Scientists suggest that their extinction on the mainland was most likely caused by the introduction of dingoes, Asian dogs that were introduced by migrating Aboriginal people. Today, a new threat faces the devils. A highly contagious disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) has been spreading since the mid-1990s and has already killed thousands of Tasmanian devils. Animal health experts are working to isolate populations where the disease has not yet appeared, and captive breeding programs of healthy devils have been put in place in an attempt to save the species from extinction. Tasmanian devils have long been protected, but now, because of DFTD, the Australian government has listed them as endangered.

I had the pleasure of seeing the devils pictured below when I visited a wildlife park in Tasmania. Because they are nocturnal, one would not normally see them in daylight, and even more rarely see them in groups. The one that looks alert has just awakened from sleep because it caught the scent of an approaching pail of food. The others would soon join him. Fortunately, these captive populations are doing more than just amusing the tourists these days—they’re helping ensure the devils’ survival.

Tasmanian devils

Tasmanian devils

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Echidnas

Monotreme is an order of mammals that are so odd, they originally confounded scientists and were at first thought to be hoaxes. Monotremes are egg-laying mammals, but that is not the only odd thing about them.

The monotreme with which most people are familiar is the platypus, that delightfully wacky composite of duck and otter, with webbed feet and a duck’s bill, soft fur and an otter-like body. It lays eggs but feed its young milk. It also happens to be poisonous, though not through its bite, but rather through spurs on the back feet of the male. (The venom is not lethal to humans, however.)

The only other known monotreme is the echidna, or spiny anteater. Just about the only thing that the echidna has in common with the platypus is being an egg-laying mammal. Instead of the duck bill, it has a tube-like snout. Instead of being sleek and slim, it is pudgy and covered in sharp spines. Unlike the platypus, which is hard to see, as it spends days in a burrow and nights under water, hunting, the echidna is land-based in its food seeking and is regularly up and about during daylight hours. As a result, it is easier to both see and photograph echidnas.

Echidnas, as their alternative name suggests, eat ants, as well as termites, digging into nests and mounds, inserting their log snouts and even longer tongues, and sucking the bugs into their mouths. (Echidnas’ tongues, by the way, are six to seven inches long, which is fairly astonishing given that the echidna itself is only about 14 inches long.) In a pinch, they’ll also eat worms, grubs, or beetles.

When in danger, the echidna digs rapidly straight down, then rolls into a ball and erects its spines, presenting a daunting array of bristles to would-be attackers. Echidnas have adapted to a wide range of climates, and their appearance varies accordingly. Those in cooler Tasmania have longer fur—almost as long as their spikes— so the bristles are not quite so much in evidence when they are not in a defensive posture.

Echidnas lay one egg, which hatches after about ten days. The milk the female offers a newly hatched echidna is so rich in iron that it’s pink. Newborns live in burrows for three months or so (the only time in their lives echidnas live in burrows), and then begin exploring. However, because they are born without spines, they are vulnerable for about the first year. Echindas then live for 30 to 40 years, though some have been known to live almost to 50.

Tasmanian Echidnas

Tasmanian Echidnas

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Tasmanian Wildlife

Wildlife is fascinating everywhere in Australia. However, there are places it is more concentrated, usually due to the presence of a better supply of food and water. Tasmania offers much that makes life easier for critters, from abundant greenery to rivers and surrounding ocean full of fish, as well as the abundant flowers and foliage that not only feed animals but attract the insects some animals fancy. As a result, there is a considerable amount of wildlife, much of it readily visible. While I did visit a wildlife park, even in the national parks and wilderness areas, animals were very much in evidence, often attracted to places humans might gather, in hopes of a handout.

Among those eternally hopeful of treats or the remains of one’s picnic lunch, the wallabies were both the most common and the most endearing. Below are a couple of wallabies who had approached me, but looked away momentarily when someone else came into view. Of course, I once again became the center of attention when I pulled some vegetable treats out of my jacket pocket. I can hardly say how much I loved these lovely, gentle little creatures.

Wallabies

Wallabies

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