Located in the southern hemisphere off by itself, Australia has many native animals found nowhere else on the planet. Some of the most unusual are the marsupials – mammals that gestate their young in a pouch. Two of the best places to see these amazing animals are Tasmania and Kangaroo Island.
Marsupials of Australia
Over half of Australia’s mammals are marsupials, animals with a short gestation period that produces undeveloped young. Within minutes of birth, the tiny baby makes its way to its mother’s pouch which will nourish it for a long lactation period. Incredibly, the fat composition of the mother’s milk actually changes according to the offspring’s developmental stage.
Australia has 140 species of marsupials. Some of the more popular ones are:
- Kangaroos – The largest (and most famous) living marsupial, kangaroos travel efficiently by hopping, allowing themselves to use less energy to cover long distances to find food. After being born, their baby (called a joey) instinctively wiggles its way to one of mama’s nipples in the pouch to drink milk. During times of drought, a kangaroo has the ability to keep an embryo dormant until they finish feeding another baby.
- Koalas – A marsupial rather than a bear, koalas are mainly active at night and sleep most (about 20 hours) of the day in a tree. Their name means “no water” as they get almost all their liquids from eucalyptus leaves. Babies grow in the mother koala’s pouch, then, after 8 months, climb on mama’s back.
- Wombats – A sturdy, burrowing animal with a large, heavy body and a short, muscular neck, wombats can weigh up to 40 kg. Their gestational pouch opens to the back, so as to avoid getting dirt in it while burrowing. They give birth to a single, jellybean-sized baby that crawls into the pouch and attaches to a nipple which then swells to prevent the joey from falling out of the backward-facing pouch.
- Tasmanian Devils – Found only on Tasmania, the carnivorous Tasmanian Devil has powerful jaws that can devour its prey whole – bones and all. This small, fierce-tempered marsupial emits a growl when it searches for food and a spine-tingling screech when it feeds. The mother births about 50 babies at a time who then compete for one of the four nipples in the mother’s pouch.
Monotremes (Egg-Laying Mammals) of Australia
Australia also has two animals that are the world’s only monotremes — mammals that lay eggs:
- Echidna – One of the oldest species on earth, the echidna is covered with spines. When threatened, they curl themselves into a spiky ball or dig themselves into the ground. The echidna lays a single egg that they roll into their belly pouch for safekeeping. It hatches ten days later and the baby echidna laps up milk that is secreted through the skin of the nipple-less pouch.
- Platypus – With a bill like a duck, webbed feet, and a broad tail like a beaver, this strange-looking animal has a streamlined body perfect for swimming. The bill of the animal helps locate food by sensing electrical charge from potential prey. For both resting and nesting, the platypus digs burrows into the river bank. The mother curls her body around the one to three eggs that she lays. After hatching, the babies suckle at mama’s underbelly fur.
Seeing Animals in the Wild on Tasmania and Kangaroo Island
Rugged Tasmania is roughly the size of Ireland. Over 40% of its spectacular land is protected as a national park and reserve land.) Narawntapu National Park, nicknamed the “Serengeti of Tasmania” is a great place to see kangaroos, wallabies (similar to kangaroos), wombats, and the occasional Tasmanian devil. Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park offers wombats and the occasional platypus. Marsupials can also be seen in other national parks – for more
information, contact the site for Tasmania’s National Parks.
Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third-largest island, is a predator free-environment that makes it a great place to spot native kangaroos, echidna, and possums as well as koalas and platypuses (that were imported for conservation purposes). More than a third of the island is devoted to National and Conservation Parks. Koalas, kangaroos, echidnas, and the occasional platypus are often spotted In Flinders Chase National Park. For more information, see the official website for Kangaroo Island.
Tasmania and Kangaroo Island both have national parks that provide excellent places to see the above-mentioned animals in the wild. Due to the country’s hot, arid climate, many of these animals are nocturnal, so the best time to see them is at dawn or dusk. A good way to ensure you will see wildlife is to take one of the many organized tours offered by experts who are familiar with the marsupials’ habitats. They can also offer knowledgeable commentary about animals.