When thinking of Australia, kangaroos and koalas instantly come to mind. Many backpackers visit the continent to spot some of the country’s unique wildlife.
Australia is home to many amazing creatures, ranging from cuddly marsupials to deadly reptiles. Still, you can stay in Australia for weeks without seeing a single kangaroo. If your backpacking route mostly consists of traveling from city to city, you’re very likely to miss out on spotting the nation’s most famous animals. Though you’ll find many types of exotic birds perched in the city parks of urban Australia, most of the country’s true animal celebrities can only be spotted outside of the major hubs.
In this Australia Wildlife Spotters Guide, we’ll tell you about Australia’s cuddly and creepy critters, and where to spot them.
Leaving Australia without encountering one of the country’s hopping national icons would be a terrible shame. Though you won’t find many of them in the cities, there are plenty of them to be found elsewhere: after all, there are two kangaroos for every person in Australia!
Spread across the country, there are four species of kangaroos: the red kangaroo, the eastern grey kangaroo, the western grey kangaroo, and the antilopine kangaroo. The large red kangaroos can be found throughout the Outback. Western grey kangaroos mostly live in south-west Western Australia, while eastern grey kangaroos live only in east Australia, with large colonies inhabiting the coast near Emerald Beach. Finally, the antilopine kangaroos can be found in the monsoonal tropical woodlands of northern Australia.
Kookaburras are known for their loud distinctive call, which sounds as if the bird is laughing. The birds can mostly be found in eastern Australia, but are also spotted in Southwest Australia. Along with the kangaroo and the koala, the kookaburra is one of the nation’s most famous animal icons. Since the call of the kookaburra is often associated with the Australian bush or a tropical jungle, it has been used as a stock sound effect in many films, including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).
Koalas live on a strict diet of eucalyptus tree leaves. The leaves are low in nutritive value, high in dietary fiber, and of high toxicity, which makes them a bit of a peculiar culinary choice. To get the most out of the leaves, koalas have a very slow metabolic rate. This makes them slow and requires them to sleep up to 18 hours a day. Koalas only live in the east and southeast of Australia and are relatively easy to spot if you know where to find them. There are several eucalyptus forests on the Great Ocean Road where you’ll find these little furry creatures sleeping in the trees, comfortably curled up into balls.
Meet Australia’s strangest animal: the platypus! Platypuses are small duck-billed mammals resembling an otter or beaver. As these odd creatures mostly live in or underwater, they can be hard to spot. In the past platypuses were frequently sighted in east Australia, but nowadays your best bet for taking a closer look at one will be at one of Australia’s wildlife sanctuaries, such as the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane.
Each year between April and November, humpback whales swim up from the rich waters of Antarctica, passing Australia’s eastern coastline. Up north, they’ll seek the comfort of sub-tropical waters to mate and give birth. Between September and November, they return. Humpback whales are known to majestically breach the surface when coming up for air. They are Australia’s most iconic whales, and one of them even played a major role in the 1990’s TV series OCEAN GIRL (1994-1997), which featured an unusual girl named Neri and her friend Charlie, a humpback whale with whom she could communicate.
Saltwater crocodiles can be found on Australia’s north and northeast coast. Visit Cairns, and you’ll find out just how dangerous this creature is. The Cairns Esplanade is elevated a couple of feet above the city’s ocean beach, as the beach is regarded as croc territory. The so-called “salties” make it impossible to enjoy the sand in Australia’s most popular diving destination, and as a solution, the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon was created: a large swimming pool on the edge of the beach.
One of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions is its extensive coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef stretches out over 2,300 kilometers along Australia’s northeastern shoreline, and can even be seen from outer space. The reef is the world’s biggest structure made by living organisms. The tiny organisms that inhabit the reef grand this enormous marine habitat reef its shape and color. Tours taking you to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling and diving are concentrated around Cairns.
During the warm months, usually from October to April, the box jellyfish pays a visit to northern Australia. The box jellyfish is by far the deadliest creature in the country. A single brush from the jellyfish’s tentacles can induce cardiac arrest: it can kill a human within a few minutes. The jellyfish’s sting is incredibly painful, and can instantly immobilize you. It’s safe to say this is one of Australia’s critters you do not want to encounter during your stay in the land Down Under!
Though related to the ostrich, the emu is endemic to Australia. Emus enjoy living on the coast, but many of them now live in the Outback. Farming activities have improved living conditions for them in the Red Centre, and emus can be seen trekking the desert year-round. The emu is the subject of many of ‘outback artist’ John Murray’s works. Like others living in the Outback, Murray knows just how ‘deeply stupid’ emus can be sometimes, and his works don’t shy on displaying them at their worst moments. Murray’s paintings can be found at the John Murray Art Gallery in Lightning Ridge, one of the best places to visit in Australia.
The echidnas is another one of Australia’s many odd creatures: this egg-laying mammal resembles both a platypus and a porcupine, yet follows the diet of an anteater. Unlike the endemic species of Australia, the echidna also made its way to New Guinea. The distribution of the echidna is similar to that of the kookaburra: they can mostly be found in eastern Australia, but can also be spotted in Southwest Australia.
Wombats are fluffy, round animals, closely related to koalas. Their short legs and stubby tails give them a particularly cuddly look. Like koalas, they have an extraordinarily slow metabolism and move very slowly. Wombats live in the southeast of Australia, and can also be found in Tasmania. In Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, the wombat is depicted as an animal of little importance. Additionally, the species was classified as a vermin in the early 20th century, which led to the destruction of their habitat and greatly reduced their numbers. Luckily, wombats have since become a protected species.
It’s easy to mistake a wallaby for a kangaroo. Still, they are classified as a different species. Wallabies are much smaller than kangaroos. Rather than living in vast, open areas like their larger siblings, wallabies live in forested areas. Another dissimilarity is the color of their fur. The wallabies’ coat has a more distinct color, compared to the muted reds and greys of kangaroos. The little animals can be found across Australia in many of the remote, heavily timbered areas of the country.
The thorny devil is one of Australia’s most famous desert creatures. Thorny devils are lizards that grow up to 21 cm in total length and are covered entirely in conical spines. Despite the thorny devil’s monstrous appearance, it’s not a venomous animal and encountering it in the Outback will not be a cause for alarm.
Australia hosts approximately 170 snake species. About 100 of those species are venomous, and these include almost all of the top 25 most venomous snakes in the world. Due to their distribution in the enormous Outback, fatalities are luckily rare. Still, you’d want to avoid encounters with slithering deadly creatures such as the Eastern Brown Snake, the Western Brown Snake, the Tiger Snake, the Coastal Taipan, or the Inland Taipan. The Inland Taipan’s poison is so venomous, its bite contains enough venom to kill more than 100 men. The Inland Taipan lives in Queensland and South Australia, but is quite reclusive and unlikely to attack.
Dingoes are wild Australian dogs, mostly found in the desert. While male dingoes are often solitary and nomadic in nature, the animals usually form a settled pack when mating. On the night of 17 August 1980, a dingo dragged Azaria Chamberlain, a two-month-old baby, from a tent at a campsite near Uluru. The event led to one of the most publicized murder trials, as the child’s mother was wrongfully convicted of murder after investigators refused to believe a dingo would attack a human. The story is shown in the film EVIL ANGELS (1988), which is headlined by Meryl Streep and Sam Neill as the parents of Azaria Chamberlain.
Popularized immensely by the Looney Tunes-character of the same name, the Tasmanian devil is an iconic symbol of Tasmania. Tasmanian devils are the size of small dogs, but can be quite muscular. With their loud screech and their ferocious eating habits, it’s easy to see how they served as the inspiration for the animated Tasmanian Devil. Tasmanian devils can be found almost everywhere in Tasmania, but recent outbreaks of devil facial tumor disease has decreased the population.
The goanna is an Australian desert native. It is the second-largest living lizard, second only to the komodo dragon. The perentie goanna – one of 25 goanna species in Australia – can grow over 2,5 meters in length. With exception of the several shoreline regions, goannas can be found everywhere is Australia. The lizards aren’t dangerous and are unlikely to attack humans: they mostly feed on insects, smaller lizards and mammals, birds, and eggs.
More articles on Australia
- Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific
- Wildlife of Australia
- The Best Places to Visit in Australia
- Backpacking in Australia: a Travel Guide
Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveller who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.