by Kathy Wolfe

More than 80% of Australia’s animals are found nowhere else in the world. Travel with Tidbits to learn more about creatures from down under.

Of the estimated 330 species of marsupials in the world, about two-thirds live in Australia. This order of mammals has a pouch on the female’s abdomen to carry the young. The females give birth just a month after conception. The endangered marsupial Tasmanian Devil is only found in Australia’s Tasmanian wilderness and national parks. Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil gives us the impression that they are wild and vicious creatures ready to tear apart anything in their path. They’re not really dangerous, only attacking when trapped or defending themselves, but their chilling growls, high-pitched screeches, and terrifying screams give the impression of a devil. It’s their appearance that gives them their name, with their red ears and extremely wide jaws lined with sharp teeth. A female Devil can nurse four little ones at a time.

    The largest marsupial on Earth is the red kangaroo, reaching heights of over 6 feet (1.83 m), although the largest on record stood 6.9 feet (2.1 m) tall and weighed 201 lbs. (91 kg). The red kangaroo hops along at 35 mph (56 km/hr.) The term “red” only applies to the males, who have short, red-brown fur. The females’ coloring is blue-grey with a brown tinge and pale grey on their lower bodies.

Kangaroos hang out together in groups of about 10, known as “mobs.” The mobs are mostly females and their young, with only a male or two. They’re always on the look-out for danger, and if spotted, they stamp their feet to warn the others. Oddly enough, red kangaroos are good swimmers, and escape to water when threatened, defending themselves by holding a predator underwater with their front paws.

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    A baby kangaroo, known as a joey, climbs into its mother’s pouch immediately after birth, and doesn’t stick its head out for 150 days. After 190 days, the joey comes out for short periods, but will remain in the pouch for the most part for about 235 days. Grey kangaroos are smaller than their red counterparts, with males weighing about 145 lbs. (66 kg), and are also tamer.

    Kangaroos and wallabies are often mistaken for each other, unless they can be seen side by side. The two come from the same scientific family, but kangaroos are much larger, with the wallaby almost an exact miniature. A typical wallaby weighs about 45 lbs. (20 kg), and stands just 3.2 feet (1 m) tall. Kangaroos have much more length between their ankles and knees, while wallaby legs are more compact. A wallaby’s coloring is much different, too, with splashes of different colors on their coat. A kangaroo might live to age 25, while the lifespan of the wallaby is just 14 years.

    The koala bear isn’t a bear at all, but another species of marsupial that spends its first 7 months in its mother’s pouch. The cuddly little koalas measure about 2.5 feet (75 cm) long and weigh 30 lbs. (14 kg). They feed only on eucalyptus trees, spending four hours a day eating. Because the leaves of the eucalyptus are low on nutrition and difficult to digest, the koala spends the remaining 18 hours of the day sleeping. 

The word “koala” is from an Aboriginal term meaning “no drink,” because the koala gets all its moisture from the eucalyptus leaves, and rarely drinks water.   

The wombat looks like a little bear with chubby cheeks. They’re pudgy and waddle when they walk, but don’t be deceived – they can run up to 25 mph (40 km/hr). This marsupial is about 40 inches (1.02 m) tall, and can reach 77 lbs. (35 kg). Their endearing appearance leads a person to think they’re cuddly and affectionate, but if threatened, wombats will attack humans with their sharp claws and large teeth, and have been responsible for human deaths.

    The smallest marsupial is just 0.12 to 0.16 inches (3-4 mm) long. The mouse-like planigale weighs about as much as a teaspoon of sugar

Australia is home to the world’s most dangerous bird, the southern cassowary. This flightless bird reaches a height of 5 feet, 6 inches (1.67 m) and can weigh nearly 160 lbs. (72.5 kg). Its danger is the five-inch (12.8 cm) claw on each foot, which is used to kick out at fast speeds, as well as having the ability to jump five feet (1.5 m) off the ground and a running speed of 30 mph (48 km/hr). Although there have been scores of injuries to humans, there have been just two known fatalities, one in 1926 and one in 2019. However, the cassowary just likes to be left alone, and won’t attack unless it feels threatened.   

      Australia’s rainforests are the environment of    the lyrebird, a unique bird that picks up sounds from its surroundings and mimics them. It has the ability to copy the sound of a chainsaw, camera shutters, car alarms, music, ring tones, crying babies, and even human speech. The lyrebird also vocalizes the call of other birds. Australia is so fond of lyrebirds, the bird’s image is included on the country’s 10-cent coin and the 100-dollar note.

Beware! Australia has more species of venomous snakes than any other continent. Twenty-one of the world’s 25 deadliest snakes can be found there, including the tiger snake, brown snake, taipan, the copperhead, and the death adder. About 12 species have venom strong enough to kill a human.

The unusual platypus is only found in the waters off the coast of Australia. Its appearance is baffling. Measuring 20 inches (51 cm) from head to toe, it has the broad flat bill of a duck, the flat tail of a beaver, and webbed feet like an otter. Platypuses are excellent swimmers, able to stay underwater 140 seconds, and thick, dense silvery brown fur keeps this mammal warm underwater. Its method of defense is a spur on the hind feet, which produces a toxic venom fatal to other animals and severely painful to humans.

    In 1798, British Naval Officer and explorer, Captain John Hunter, was on an expedition to the Australia and Tasmania region when he and his crew first saw a platypus. They found it so unusual, they made a sketch and brought it back to England. Scientists there claimed it was a hoax and refused to believe the bizarre story, even after a live specimen was brought to them. They argued that it had been created by a taxidermist who had sewn a duck’s beak and feet onto another animal.