Australian Bureau of Statistics
1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 1909
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 01/01/1908
|Page tools: Print Page RSS Search this Product|
This page was updated on 22 Nov 2012 to include the disclaimer below. No other content in this article was affected.
The spiny-ant-eaters are represented on the mainland and in Tasmania by the well-known Tachyglossus aculeata or Echidna aculeata, and in Papua by an allied form with a somewhat longer beak. The beak is narrow and rounded, and the long tongue, covered with a viscid secretion, is a very effective instrument for the capture of the ants on which the animal lives. The spines with which the body is covered are colour-banded like those of the true porcupines of the northern hemisphere, but are much shorter. When attacked the animal rolls itself into a ball. It is of great strength, burrows vertically downwards with extreme rapidity, and is an expert rock climber. The two eggs are hatched in a pouch which superficially resembles that of the marsupials. Though possessed of a pouch and "marsupial" bones, the egg-laying mammals are not, in the ordinary sense of the term, allied to the marsupials.
Confining our attention to the Australian marsupials, we find the Diadactyla, which have the second and third toes separate, are represented only by a single family, the Dasyuridæ, or native cat family. This family is apparently less changed from the original marsupial stock than is any other Australian one. The "native cats" (Dasyurus), the several kinds of which vary in size from that of a pug-dog to that of a ferret, are nearly all spotted with white, the body colour being brown or black. They are found all over Australia, from Tasmania to New Guinea. A number of small species exist, ranging in size from a half-grown kitten to that of a mouse, and belonging to two other genera (Phascologale and Sminthopsis). Popularly they are called weasels and mice. Some of them are terrestrial, others arboreal. There is a peculiar jerboa-like little species (Antechinomys laniger), which is found throughout the drier interior. The banded ant-eater (Myrmecobius), about the size of a rat, has a similar range, but seems commoner on the western side of the continent. The Tasmanian Devil (Diabolus ursinus, or Sarcophilus ursinus), now confined to Tasmania, is a clumsy, hideous, black and white blotched animal, about as large as a pug-dog. Its ferocity and strength justified its name.
The last member of this family is the Tasmanian wolf or tiger (Thylacynus cynocephalus). It is about the size of a retriever, but with a much longer body. The cross-banded back gives it the name of tiger, which is the one generally used. It is a fierce, predatory animal, but is rapidly becoming exterminated. Like the Tasmanian Devil, it formerly lived on the mainland, and its fossil remains have been found as far north as the Darling Downs. All authorities are not agreed that the "tiger" should be included in the same family as the animals previously mentioned. Some place it in a family by itself; others group with it certain South American extinct animals known as Sparassodonts; others again hold that the latter forms are not marsupials at all, but a sort of connecting link between them and an ancient group, the Creodonta, which gave rise to the modern Carnirora, and to the Marsupialia as well.
Taking now the remaining Australian marsupials, we find that they all have the second and third toes bound together; they are Syndactyla. Two families are polyprotodont, namely the Peramelidæ and the Notoryctidæ; the others are diprotodont.
The Peramelidæ, or bandicoot family, comprises several animals mostly about the size of a large rat. They are ground-dwellers, and range over all Australia. The marsupial-mole (Notoryctes) forms a family by itself. It is about the size of a newly-born kitten, golden yellow in colour, quite blind, its eyes being very rudimentary and covered by the muscles of the face. On hard ground it is a clumsy, sprawling walker, but in sandy soil a remarkably rapid burrower, its great, shovel-shaped claws enabling it to sink out of sight almost at once. It has a remarkably restricted area of distribution, being confined, as far as is known, to the basin of the Finke River in Central Australia, though there is the probability that it is to be found in Western Australia.
The remaining families are diprotodont. The Phalangeridæ include the Australian "possums" (Trichosurus), which have wrongly appropriated the name of the true or American opossums. The value of the skins of these animals for farrier's' purposes leads to their slaughter by millions annually, and they have now disappeared where they were once common. Some allied forms (Petaurus, Dromicia and Acrobates) have a fold of skin stretching from the hind to the fore-limb, which enables them to glide from a greater to a lesser height. Collectively, they are spoken of as flying-squirrels, though they cannot fly and are not squirrels. The Koala, Kola, or native bear or monkey-hear (Phascolarctos), a lethargic leaf-eater, belongs to this family.
The Phascolomyidæ, or wombat family, contains only one living genus (Phascolomys), which is confined to the south-east and Tasmania. The wombats are inoffensive burrowers, but unfortunately are apt to damage crops where they are common, and their great strength and burrowing powers make fences but poor protection against their inroads.
The kangaroo family (Macropodidæ) is a large one, and its members vary in size from the giant, standing higher than a man, to the Musk kangaroo of the Herbert River, which is about ten inches long. The larger forms were dwellers on the open plains, where, with scarcely any foes, they grazed in countless thousands. Now, like the bison of America, they are passing away. The smaller kangaroos which belong to various genera, and are spoken of as wallabies, frequent the scrubs and rocky fastnesses of the mountains. The tree kangaroos of Queensland and New Guinea (Dendrolagus) browse on the leaves of lofty eucalypts, which they climb to their topmost branchlets.
Among extinct marsupials we have Diprotodon, as large as a rhinoceros, but as inoffensive apparently as a wombat, which it seems to have resembled much in appearance. Thylacoleo, a huge carnivorous monster, greater than a polar bear, was allied to the phalangers. There were also giant kangaroos, standing a dozen feet high, and wombats as large as an ox. On the other hand there was a dwarf wombat, about a quarter of the size of our recent species. The oldest known Australian marsupial, Wynyardia is of Oligocene or perhaps Eocene age.
Birds shew the same characteristics that the mammals do. Deficiencies, as well as the presence of peculiarly Australian forms, serve to distinguish Australia from the rest of the world. Among the groups which arc eminently characteristic are the birds of paradise, which have their home in New Guinea and just pass into Northern Queensland. Of pigeons, we have more species than the rest of the world, and we have the largest and the smallest kinds. The cassowary and the emu, forming a single family, are unknown beyond our regions. The cassowary (Casuarius) is found in the forests of New Guinea and North Queensland, and the emu (Dromæus) ranges over all Australia, and, till it was exterminated, was common on Kangaroo Island, the islands of Bass-Straits, and Tasmania. The brush-tongued lories (Trichoglossidæ) follow the flowering of the honey-yielding eucalypts throughout Australia. The honey-eaters (Meliphagidæ) are among our most characteristic birds, though they pass far beyond Australia itself, and out across the Pacific, even to the Sandwich Islands. The larger ones are sought for food, while some of the smaller kinds, which have developed a taste for orchard fruits, are at times a scourge. The peculiar mound-nests of the Megapodidæ, where the eggs are hatched after the manner of those of reptiles, are very characteristic of Australia, though not confined to it. Among other strange forms are the bower birds (Ptilonorhynchidæ), whose habit of building playing-runs and decorating them with bones, shells, flowers, and so on, has often been described. The lyre birds (Menuridæ) are remarkable for their peculiar tail feathers. They are inhabitants of dense fern-gullies in Eastern Australia. Their allies, the scrub birds (Atrichidæ) are confined to the dense forests of the warm east coast, and of West Australia. The most striking absentees, whose abundance in Eastern Asia makes their absence here so remarkable, are the pheasants and vultures, while there are other abundant East Asiatic forms which are poorly represented amongst us.
Among reptiles we have the estuary crocodile (Crocodilus porosus), occurring commonly in the northern rivers, and ranging from India to the Solomons, and even it is said, as a stray, to Fiji. A small, harmless species (Crocodilus johnstoni) is found in the fresh waters of the north. Of freshwater tortoises there are three genera represented (Chelodina, Emydura and Elseya). None occur in Tasmania. These tortoises tuck their heads into their carapaces by an S-shaped fold in a horizontal plane, and belong to a group whose other representatives are found in South America.
Among lizards the most peculiar are the so-called legless lizards (Pygopodidæ), which are confined to Australia. In them the front limbs are completely absent, and the hind limbs are represented only by a pair of short flaps, which fit into grooves at the side of the body, and so easily escape detection. The family contains seven genera, Pygopus, Delma, and Lialis being the most widely spread. The skinks (Scincidæ) are the most numerous Australian family, and the Varanidæ, commonly called "goannas," contain the largest of our lizards. Altogether we have about 390 species of lizards.
There are slightly more than 100 species of Australian snakes, about three-quarters of them being venomous. The number of non-poisonous forms decreases as the latitude rises, so that in Tasmania none are found, all the snakes being venomous. The harmless kinds include the blind snakes (Typhlopidæ), which have very smooth, glassy skins, and are burrowing forms, living principally on termites, and therefore deserving of careful protection. The pythons and rock snakes are the largest of our Ophidia, but are also harmless. Python spilotes, the diamond and carpet snake of the mainland, is beautifully mottled. It grows to a length of about 10 feet, and is found throughout Australia. The long, slender, green tree-snake (Dendrophis punctulatus) inhabits almost the whole of Australia. It is quite harmless and feeds on tree frogs, young birds, and lizards. Though so many of our snakes are poisonous, only five common forms are really deadly. These are the brown snake (Diemenia textilis, or Demansia textilis), the black snake (Pseudechys porphyriacus), the copperhead--unfortunately called diamond snake in Tasmania--(Denisonia superba), the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus), known in Tasmania as the carpet snake, and lastly the death adder (Acanthophis antarctica). The first four all occur in Tasmania, and are the only snakes found there. The tiger snake is the boldest of all, and commonly shews fight. The death adder, a short, thick-bodied snake, is very lethargic, and often allows itself to be trodden on, when it strikes with lightning-like rapidity and deadly effect. None of our snakes have long enough teeth to make their bite, when made through clothing - even a single thickness of tweed - a cause of dread.
In amphibia the most striking fact is the absence of tailed forms (Urodela). The characteristic old world genus Rana just invades North Queensland. We are especially rich in tree frogs (Hylidæ), some of which as Hyla aurea, the common southern green frog, have lost their tree-climbing habits and the adhesive suckers on fingers and toes. The Cystignathidæ, which include the common sand frog of the south east, occur also in South America. The water-holding frog, with its body enormously distended by water, can live for a year or more in thoroughly dried mud. It is found in Central Australia.
Owing to our poor river development, Australia is not rich in fresh water fish. The great river basin of the Murray has several species peculiar to itself, as the Murray cod (Oligorus macquariensis), the golden perch (Plectroplites ambiguus), the silver perch (Therapon ellipticus) and the catfish (Copidoglanis tandanus). Of these, the Murray cod, owing to stream capture and the consequent alteration of drainage areas, has invaded the head waters of a few other rivers, as the Richmond and Clarence Rivers in New South Wales. Another curious instance of distribution is that of the blackfish of the south-east (Gadopsis marmoratus). This is almost confined to rivers entering Bass Straits, it being found in Northern Tasmania and Southern Victoria. These streams are the now separated upper-waters of a river which drained the plain now occupied by Bass Strait, and entered the ocean to the north of King Island. River capture has carried blackfish into the upper waters of the Goulburn and the Loddon. Eels, which are common in all streams from Cape York to Beachport, are absent from the entire Murray basin and Central and Western Australia, and apparently from Northern Australia as well. The southern trouts (Galaxias) are found in the streams of south-eastern Australia and Tasmania. Elsewhere they are found in South Africa, New Zealand, Patagonia and Chile. As some of the species, but not all, breed in the sea, the distribution of the genus is not as remarkable as once was thought. The gudgeons or bullheads (Gobiidæ) have representatives in fresh water all over Australia. None of these grow to any size.
The most remarkable of all our fresh-water fish, however, is the Lung fish (Neoceratodus forsteri) of the Mary and Burnett Rivers of Queensland. It is one of the three surviving species of an ancient and once world-wide group of fish. As its name implies, it has a lung, a modified swim-bladder, in addition to the usual gills. When the water is foul it comes to the surface to breathe. It cannot, as its African relatives do, live in the mud of dried-up ponds.
In land and fresh-water shellfish we are not well off. The eastern coastal strip from Cape York well into New South Wales is closely related to Papua in its shellfish, as it is also in so many other ways. There are many genera of the Helices. Of the rest of Australia the western State seems the poorest in molluscs, though many of its inhabitants range right across to the eastern highlands.
Among insects, the butterflies of the warm damp Queensland coastal districts vie in beauty with those of any part of the world. As we retire from this region their number and size decrease. The wandering butterfly, a black and white species, at times appears in countless myriads and travels far out to sea. We are especially rich in beetles of the families Buprestidæ, Curculionidæ, and Cerambycidæ, the members of the first family containing some very handsome insects. White ants are plentiful, especially in the tropics. One species is remarkable for its narrow, wall-like nests, which have their long axes along the north and south line.
Among crustacea a species of Apus is found in the interior, and the allied Lepidurus in the southern coastal districts. The peculiar isopod, Phreatoicus, and some allied genera, are found in our mountain streams or burrowing in the damp southern gullies. Koonunga, a recently described Anaspid, is an annectant form between the stalk-and sessile-eyed groups. Among the higher crustacea belonging to the Parastacidæ are the genera Astacopsis (Chærops), which is spread all over the continent, and Engaeus, found only in Tasmania and Southern Victoria. The larger species of Astacopsis are used as food.
Among the flat-worms, Linstowia is peculiar, as it is confined to the monotremes and the marsupials of Australia and South America. The genus then must date back to Mesozoic times. Temnocephala infests the fresh-water crayfish, and is curious on account of its distribution, as it ranges up into America, and, strange to say, an allied form has recently been recorded from Southern Europe.
Australia is rich in earthworms, but the native species are being ousted by European forms. Megascolides is remarkable for the size of one of its species, the giant earth worm of Gippsland (M. australis), which reaches a length of over seven feet, and is as thick as a man's finger. The Acanthodrilidæ are distinctly a southern family, being especially plentiful in Australia, New Zealand and South America, and gradually becoming fewer in species as we pass north from these lands.
To attempt to deal with the fresh-water protozoa would make too great demands on space. and for the same reason the whole of the marine fauna must here be passed over in silence.
4. ORIGIN OF THE FAUNA
The place of origin of our Fauna and its route of entry into Australia has been much discussed. As mentioned previously, it consists of several constituents. The marsupials, and probably some of the birds, the tortoises, the cystignathid frogs, some fresh-water fish (as the Galaxiidæ and some others), many insects and earthworms, have their nearest living allies in South America. These represent ancient groups, and probably date back to the times when a great antarctic continent existed, of which the southern lands are but isolated fragments.
Much of the remaining Fauna has a northern origin, as the dingo, rats, bats, most of our flying birds, lizards, fresh-water crayfish, and probably the bulk of our insects. The evidence of a Malayan incursion, both of plants and animals, is specially strong along the damp seaward slopes of the eastern coast range of Australia.
The native Australian Fauna is in danger of disappearing before the inroads of introduced animals like the rabbit, the sparrow, and the starling. The beginning of an attempt to stay this onset may be seen in the reservation in some of the States of asylums for the native animals. The Victorian reserve includes nearly all Wilson's Promontory, the southernmost part of Australia; New South Wales has reserved a coastal strip near the Hawkesbury mouth; but enlightened action is badly needed.
These documents will be presented in a new window.
This page last updated 22 November 2012