Wild Life in Australia

This Google earth image of the ancient volcanic caldera, the Green Cauldron, with Mount Warning / Wollumbin at its centre, is covered in sub tropical rainforest and cleared pastures with horse and cattle farms, sugar cane, bananas, tea and coffee plantations. The Aboriginal people of the Bundjalung nation have dwelt here for many thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the early 1800s. Springbrook Mountain is the locality of many yowie encounters and from where the plaster cast of the footprints in Figure 2 was obtained.

Residents have encountered the Australian hairy man, also known as the Australian gorilla Australian bigfoot and yowie throughout this region. I was working as a national park ranger at Green Mountains in Lamington National Park in 1971 when I first became aware of its existence when our house was attacked.  I had previously observed at close range a large undescribed carnivorous marsupial cross the road in front of me in September 1969.

This map from Australia.com illustrates the area covered by the Green Cauldron, the extinct volcanic caldera and its towns, villages, beaches, roads and the national parks. The northern crater wall of mountains creates the boundary between Queensland with its Gold Coast and the northern Rivers of New South Wales. Green areas indicate national park protected wilderness forests that are home to one of the world’s hot spots of biological diversity. Known as the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986, this locality has been the centre of research by Gary Opit.

Mount Warning, rearing from the South Pacific Ocean, was named by Captain James Cook in 1770 during the first known European exploratory voyage up the Australian east coast. The Australian continent is being dragged north at a speed of between 6 and 8 cm per year by currents of semi-liquid rock beneath the crust. Hot spots in the crust produced a series of massive volcanoes along the eastern coast that now exist as extinct and eroded remnants of once mighty mountains. The Green Cauldron is the most perfectly preserved of these volcanos.

The Australian continent was originally covered in rainforest and the plants and animals have adapted to a continuously drying landscape as it moved away from the South Pole into warmer, drier weather systems. With Australia out of the way, the icy ocean currents were able to continuously encircle Antarctica, producing a planet-sized refrigerator that cooled the Earth until ice age conditions prevailed. Australia moved slowly north into the tropics as the globe cooled and so the climate remained stable and this allowed ancient plants and animals to survive on this remarkable continent.

The Queensland lungfish was one of the first vertebrates to have a lung and to be able to breathe in oxygen from the air. The five rayed fins of its relatives became the hands & feet of all terrestrial animals and after 300 million years this unique fish is still swimming in the rivers of southern Queensland. Some of the plants have survived from the days of the dinosaur and are still growing in these forests today and include tree ferns, hoop pine, bunya pine, kauri pine, brown pine, Norfolk Island pine and the newly discovered Wollemi Pine.

The Green Cauldron’s volcanic crater walls are covered in undisturbed forest and are protected by United Nations World Heritage and Australian Government national parks.

Ancient rainforests now survive only in sheltered habitats, mostly within the mountains along the eastern coast of Australia. On the top of these mountains Antarctic beech rainforest, that dominated the continent in the distant past, still survive. They are dependent on the cool temperatures at higher elevations and the regular rainfall blowing in from the Coral Sea.

Rainforest plants have dense canopies that shade the ground and their leaves are moist and fire retardant because the trees are easily killed by fire and their seedlings need moist shady soils.

Giant strangling figs (Right) dominate the rainforest where hundreds of different species of plants and animals have been identified. Giant strangling figs are the soldiers of the rainforest. Growing on top of and strangling eucalypt and other trees and then casting out their wide canopy to shade the ground and provide habitat for more rainforest plants, the strangling figs advance the edge of the rainforest into the eucalypt forest to conquer new territory.

The fig fruit is eaten by birds and animals and the seeds are deposited in droppings on the branches of other trees. The fig tree begins growing, not in the soil, instead on the branches in the canopy. The roots grow down along the tree trunks taking nutrients and water from the damp atmosphere until they reach the ground. The roots then thicken and envelope the host tree until it finally out-competes it and replaces it in the forest.

On less fertile and drier soils beyond the edge of the rainforest and extending down to the coastal nature reserves are forests dominated by eucalypts, acacias, banksias, and melaleucas inhabited by unique Australian animals. Many eucalypt tree species, including this Scribbly Gum tree (Eucalyptus signata), peel back and drop their outer bark covering every year, thus removing any young strangling figs attached to it and so can dominate the forest in direct competition with the rainforest.

With flammable eucalyptus oil in the leaves and lots of dead bark and sticks shed on to the ground around it, the eucalyptus trees provide conditions that encourage bushfires to burn back the rainforest and thus produce the sun-drenched soils that the eucalypt seedlings need. For millions of years the rainforests and eucalypt forests have fought one another in this way for domination of the landscape.

The largest animals in these forests are elusive carnivores that have never been captured or photographed. Only a few drawings exist that give us a glimpse of what dwells within this rugged wilderness.

The koala is the most famous animal that inhabits the Green Cauldron.

Koalas live in the eucalypt trees and the male gives forth with loud grunting calls that often frighten people at night thinking that some dangerous animal is lurking nearby. The name koala is an Aboriginal word for “does not drink” because they get their water from the moisture inside the gum leaves. If they were active during the day, with our hot sunny weather, they would perspire and need to drink water so they move around their large territories of between 5 and 20 hectares during the night and rest in the branches during the day. They do not become intoxicated by gum leaves as some people have imagined.

The swamp wallaby is one of a number of kangaroo species that dwell in these forests.

The grazing kangaroos and wallabies have developed the most efficient means of terrestrial locomotion in that their bipedal hopping, the ability to leap fences, or bounding at great speed, expends less energy than quadruped running or galloping. This also leaves their hand-like paws free for grasping and manipulation. Each time they leap they automatically drag air into their lungs and each time they hit the ground the air is forced out so they use little energy while they are moving.

Many of these marsupials also have the most efficient and advanced methods of reproduction. The female is almost continuously pregnant from the time she reaches sexual maturity and always has a second fertilized egg or blastocycst remaining in a quiescent stage waiting to resume development and proceed to birth when the previous pouch young is about to leave or is lost or dies. The mother is also able to produce milk of two quite different compositions for two suckling young of very different ages at the same time to accommodate the baby in the pouch and the almost weaned Joey that still places its head in the pouch to suckle. In this way they can survive the terrible droughts that the continent is known for. Unlike a deer or antelope, the female does not leave the young to be eaten by carnivores when hunted but takes her baby with her as she races away. When she bends to eat the grass the Joey can feed without leaving the pouch.

The largest of the many lizard species in these forests is the lace monitor, also called a tree goanna, which grows to a length of 2 metres.

Our largest skinks include the blue tongue lizard, and a large black lizard, the land mullet. Agamids or dragons are spectacular lizards, some reaching three quarters of a metre long with frills around the head in the frilled lizard and spines down its back in the water dragon. The bearded dragon lives in the open eucalypt forest and if disturbed it opens its mouth and extends is black spiky beard to make itself look fearsome.

There are many species of nocturnal gecko and the largest is the rainforest leaf-tail gecko, up to 20cm in length, which resembles in colour and textures the lichen-covered bark of the trees that it clings to at night, head down to capture insects and spiders climbing up the trunk.

Carpet pythons reach a length of four metres and suffocate their prey of small mammals and birds by throwing coils around the victim and squeezing. Harmless tree snakes hunt for frogs and lizards in the vegetation. Also harmless is the blind snake, worm-like species with tiny eyes and which feeds on termites in the soil. Venomous snakes include many that are harmless to people though some of the world’s most dangerous species call this continent home and include tiger snakes, brown snakes, king brown, death adders and taipans. All of these snakes are shy and generally avoid people and most are rarely observed.

This crimson rosella is one of many different species of parrots that inhabit these forests, along with cockatoos, emus, birds of paradise, fruit pigeons and wedge-tail eagles.

The largest songbird, the size of a pheasant, is the silver-tailed Prince Albert lyrebird, reputed to have the most beautiful and powerful voice of any species. It can mimic the call of other birds and during the winter the males sing and dance to announce their presence to the females.

The bush turkey is an ancient Australian bird known as a megapode. They do not sit on their eggs to incubate them as other birds do. The male uses his feet to scratch up a huge mound of dead leaves and soil, a metre high and three metres across, into which the female lays an egg. After several eggs have been laid the male takes care of the nest by checking its temperature with his tongue, keeping it at about 33 degrees C, raking off leaves if it gets too hot and raking on more leaves if the temperature drops. When the chicks hatch, they are fully feathered and independent.

The blue-black male satin bowerbird builds a permanent bower of two parallel arched walls of twigs within its territory & decorates it with the rarest objects in the forest, primarily blue feathers, berries and flowers. The regent bowerbird builds temporary bowers with amber coloured objects such as snail shells, seeds, leaves and berries and the male is one of the world’s most beautiful birds with bright golden orange and yellow feathers contrasting with black plumage.

The laughing kookaburra is one of the largest of the kingfishers and it has an amazing territorial call that is very well known.

Go to my Australian Cryptozoology page to find some of the more elusive Australian Animals.