Clown fish live in the coral reefs off the coasts of Australia. © Tory Chase

Wildlife stories

Top 10 Australian animal oddities

Fun facts about some of Australia's unique native animals.

Whenever you might travel to or from Australia, you get a sense that we’re a long way from almost everywhere else on Earth. And it’s been that way for a very long time. This geographical isolation has meant that most of our animals have evolved separately from animals in many other parts of the world.

The result is a number of unique animal groups with some very curious ways of surviving in in the Australian environment.

10. Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroo

Kangaroos in trees!? Yes indeed. Evolved from regular, ground dwelling kangaroos, there are a dozen different species of tree-kangaroos found mostly in New Guinea. Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroo is one of the two Australian species wonderfully adapted for life high up in the trees, the other is Bennett's Tree-kangaroo.

Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos are found in the rainforest of tropical Queensland, centred on the Atherton Tablelands, extending north as far as the Carbine Tableland. They're primarily leaf-eaters, but also feed on many fruits and has been known to take cultivated maize from farms adjacent to its rainforest habitat.

Tree-kangaroos are nocturnal and they spend the daylight hours sleeping hunched over in a sitting position high in tree canopies. Living in high rainfall areas, tree-kangaroos need to be able to stay dry. To do this, the fur covering their bodies is arranged so that it points outward from a point near the middle of the back, allowing water to run off the fur while they are sleeping.

The main threat to Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos is clearing of their rainforest habitat, although this has lessened with the declaration of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. It is possible that their unwillingness to move from their established home ranges may place them at risk where even small levels of clearing occur. This may also reduce the likelihood of successful relocation. They do travel between patches of rainforest for dispersal and mating. Unfortunately, during this movement they are susceptible to being killed on roads and through dog attacks.

Evolved from regular, ground dwelling kangaroos, there are a dozen different species of tree-kangaroos found mostly in New Guinea.
Lumholtz's Tree kangaroo Evolved from regular, ground dwelling kangaroos, there are a dozen different species of tree-kangaroos found mostly in New Guinea. © Matt Summerville

9. Thorny Devil

They may look ferocious (to scare off predators), but Thorny Devils are actually very placid and slow moving reptiles. In case the thorns aren't enough, the back of it's neck features a spiny knob-like, soft tissue appendage, sometimes called a “false head”, which it presents to potential predators by dipping its real head down between its forelegs, leaving the false head where its real head used to be. They have another defense mechanism in which they inflate their chests with air to make themselves flatten out like a pancake, making themselves look bigger and harder to swallow.

To hydrate, thorny devils collect moisture in the dry desert by the condensation of dew on its body at night, during rare rainfalls, or by brushing up against dew-coated grass and overhanging plants. The collected moisture gets channeled to its mouth via grooves between their spikes through capillary action, allowing the them to suck water from all over its body.

These lizards only eat ants and can eat thousands in a single day. They will find a feeding site and then sit and wait for their prey to pass in front of them, capturing the ants with their sticky tongues. 

Similar to chameleons, thorny devils can change color, going to a lighter pale yellow and red in warm weather, and to darker colors in cold weather. They will go through this process throughout the day, changing with the sun, temperature and activity levels.

in the desert
Thorny Devil in the desert © Carolyn Larcombe

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8. Ocellaris Clownfish

Clownfish were named because of the bold coloured strokes across their body, like a clown's face paint. They live in a symbiotic relationship with anemones, thanks to the mucus on their skin, it tricks the anemone into thinking that it is touching itself, so they don’t get stung. This gives the fish excellent protection whilst feeding on parasites to help keep the anemone clean.

All clownfish are born as males, but when the dominant female of a group dies, the largest male will turn itself into a female. This change is irreversable.

Most of us have seen the yellow, orange and red varieties with three white bands, but there are black and white versions as well. 

Ocellaris clownfish are found from the eastern Indian Ocean to the western Pacific Ocean, including south-east Asia, northern Australia, Japan and Taiwan. Whilst they are not considered endangered at the moment, their habitat and breeding habits are impacted by global warming which can put them at risk in the future.

live in the coral reefs off the coasts of Australia.
Clown fish live in the coral reefs off the coasts of Australia. © Tory Chase

7. Common Wombat

Poo comes in a variety of shapes, however the cubed droppings of wombats is unique in the animal kingdom. Wombats expel up to a hundred cubic droppings each night as territorial signposts on the tops of rocks and logs. Their distinct shape with the flat sides of the cubes help keep the droppings in place on their precarious locations. 

Preferring wet, forested areas with slopes (for burrow drainage), common wombats inhabit the southeastern coastal regions of Australia, including eastern New South Wales, eastern and southern Victoria, southeastern South Australia, and the whole of Tasmania.

With a tough barrel-like body, short powerful legs, and long flat claws, the wombat is extremely adept at digging burrows. A wombat may have up to 12 burrows in its home range with three to four main burrows. The main burrow will house a network of subtunnels, which include multiple entrances and sleeping quarters.

As a marsupial, they have a pouch which faces backwards to protect their young free from dirt whilst the mother digs.

Most of the time, wombats remain in their burrows to stay out of the heat. However, they venture out at night and in cooler mornings and evenings to graze. Their diet consists of grass, shrubs, roots, bark, and moss. They are the only marsupial in the world whose teeth constantly grow which allows them to maintain a diet of mainly native grasses to balance out the constant wear.

Threats to wombats include destruction of habitat due to urban sprawl and modern day forestry practices, competition with rabbits and livestock for food, rabbit poisons, hunting, and road accidents. While eagles, owls, and quolls prey on the young, wombats’ main predators include dingoes, foxes, and Tasmanian devils. Foxes also spread deadly diseases to wombats such as mange.

Check out the Common Wombats on our Director of Conservation’s bush block.

in Australia
Common wombat in Australia © BMJ Shutterstock

6. Satin Bowerbird

Getting their name from the intricate courtship bowers they build, each species of bowerbird has its own sense of design and taste. Satin Bowerbirds prefer to decorate theirs with blue objects they find in the rainforest.

A male satin bowerbird constructs a display structure, known as a ‘bower’, that it builds with sticks on the ground, and it has two sides facing each other with a pathway through the middle, and while it is often thought of as a nest, it is never used for this purpose.

Satin bowerbirds are a species of bird, native to the eastern states of Australia, and they are typically found in forest habitats, especially wet or rainforest areas.

Males build specialised stick structures, called bowers, which they decorate with blue, yellow, and shiny objects, including berries, flowers, and plastic items such as ballpoint pens, drinking straws and clothes pegs. As the males mature they use more blue objects than other colours. Females visit these and choose which male they will allow to mate with them. In addition to building their bowers, males carry out intense behavioural displays called dances to woo their mates, but these can be treated as threat displays by the females.

Adult male and female satin bowerbirds share the same bright lilac-blue eyes but no other similarities in color, the male being black with a sheen of glossy purple-blue, and the female olive-green above, with off-white and dark scalloping on her lower parts, with brown wings and tail. Juvenile males and females look similar to each other, known as 'green' birds.

is endemic to eastern Australia
Satin Bowerbird is endemic to eastern Australia © Simone Cheung

5. Koala

Koalas look much like cuddley bears, but they belong to the marsupial family that have a pouch where their newborns, called a "joey", develops. When the joey is born, it’s only about 2 centimetres long, is blind and furless and its ears are not yet developed. On its amazing journey to the pouch, it relies on its well-developed senses of smell and touch, its strong forelimbs and claws, and an inborn sense of direction. Once in the pouch, it attaches itself to one of the two teats which swells in its mouth, preventing it from being dislodged from its source of food.

Koalas are also notoriously sleepy. In fact they can sleep about 18 to 20 hours a day. That's as much as a Sloth.

Eucalyptus leaves are super tough and poisonous! Luckily for koalas, they have a long digestive organ called a cecum which allows them to break down the leaves unharmed. Due to this process it requires a lot of energy to digest their toxic, fibrous, low-nutrition diet and sleeping is the best way to conserve energy.

Koala’s grow up to become big eaters, shifting up to one kilogram of eucalyptus leaves in a day! They are fussy, too, and will select the most nutritious and tastiest leaves from the trees where they live.

in a tree
Koala in a tree © Oscar Sutton, Unsplash

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4. Desert Spadefoot Toad

Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? – toads in the desert – but these squat looking frogs are adaptable native amphibians that survive well in the toughest parts of Australia like Martu Country in the Great Sandy Desert.

They can be found in open country with sparse vegetation cover. This burrowing species is active on the surface at night even under hot dry conditions. During the dry season they spend half the year underground encased in a cocoon of their own skin. They have been dug from burrows at depths of more than one metre. Once the heavy rains start, they will break from their cocoon and climb up to the surface to feed and breed. They breed in temporary ponds, especially desert claypans. They deposit their eggs in large chains draped amongst submerged vegetation. As this species is only present on the surface for the breeding season, their tadpoles can complete metamorphosis in as little as 30 days.

When handled, spadefoot frogs will inflate themselves and ooze a yellowy creamy secretion that becomes quite sticky.

in Australia
Desert Spadefoot Toad in Australia © Barry Kiepe

3. Leafy Seadragon

Amazingly, Leafy Sea Dragons are actually fish. As brilliantly described by our Marine Manager, Dr Chris Gillies, Leafy Seadragon is a fish that looks like a horse camouflaged to look like a plant!" Doesn’t come much odder (or more beautiful) than that.

A leafy sea dragon hunts its food by snapping its head forward and sucking the shrimps and larvae into its long, tubular, toothless snout before swallowing them whole. They have to eat very frequently, up to 1,000 little sea creatures a day. The reason they have to feed so often though has to do with the fact that they don’t have any digestive system to hold the food.

One of the most amazing things about leafy sea dragons, and other pipefish species, is that the father carries the eggs. Unlike sea horses, who carry eggs in a pouch, leafy sea dragons have a soft, spongy brood patch under their tail.

In summer, when the male is ready to mate he’ll turn bright yellow. The female sea dragon then lays about 200 pink eggs on the male’s brood patch where they become fertilised. The male dragon then carries the young for four to six weeks. When the babies are ready, they begin to hatch over several days and the father helps this process by gently shaking the babies from their eggs.

found along the southern and western coasts of Australia. They are some of the most ornately camouflaged creatures on the planet
Leafy Seadragon found along the southern and western coasts of Australia. They are some of the most ornately camouflaged creatures on the planet © Michael Warwish, Shutterstock

2. Short-beaked Echidna

The echidna has spines like a porcupine, a beak like a bird, a pouch like a kangaroo, waddles like a penguin, and lays eggs like a reptile—if that's not strange enough young echidnas or puggles, feed on their mother’s milk exuded through a patch of her skin in a pouch made for carrying the puggle – before it gets its spines that is.

One of four species of echidnas and one of only five species of monotremes (egg-laying mammals) on Earth, the Short-beaked Echidna is found throughout Australia in places like the Great Western Woodlands.

Their snouts are rigid and strong, allowing them to break open logs and termite mounds. Echidnas then slurp up ants and other insects with their sticky, saliva-covered tongue, which can be 17cm long!

Echidnas have a very keen sense of smell, useful in locating mates, detecting danger and snuffling for food. Their short limbs and shovel-like claws are perfect for digging out food and burrowing in the soil. Males also have a spur on each hind leg though, unlike the Platypus, it’s non-venomous.

The Echidna has porcupine-like spines, a bird-like beak, quoll-like pouch and lays eggs like a reptile.
Short-beaked Echidna The Echidna has porcupine-like spines, a bird-like beak, quoll-like pouch and lays eggs like a reptile. © Joanne Ousley

1. Platypus

With its duck-like bill and webbed-feet on a beaver-like body and tail, 18th century Platypus specimens sent to the British Museum of Natural History were suspected of being a hoax. Also a monotreme and one of the few venomous mammals on Earth, platypuses are truly exceptional and get our nod as the oddest of Australian animals.

Males have a spur on the back of their hind feet that is connected to a venom-secreting gland. More venom is secreted during mating season, leading researchers to think that the spurs and venom help males compete for mates, according to the Australian Platypus Conservatory. The venom is not life threatening to humans, but it can cause severe swelling and "excruciating pain." 

Their front feet are webbed which acts like a paddle when they're swimming. When on land, their webbing retracts, making the claws more pronounced. Since platypuses are made more for swimming than walking, they walk awkwardly on their knuckles to protect the webbing.

The bill of a platypus has a smooth texture that feels like suede. It is also flexible and rubbery. The skin of the bill holds thousands of receptors that help the platypus navigate underwater and detect movement of potential food, such as shellfish. Since they only have grinding plates and no teeth, platypuses use any gravel or dirt they scooped up while on the bottom of the waterbed to mash their food into digestible pieces. 

They have waterproof fur, skin that covers their ears and eyes, and noses that seal shut to protect the animals while they are underwater. Though platypuses are made for the water, they can't stay completely submerged. They can only stay underwater for 30 to 140 seconds.

an egg laying aquatic mammal of eastern Australia
Platypus an egg laying aquatic mammal of eastern Australia © Klaus Ber, Wikimedia Commons