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Australia may be the smallest continent with only three million square miles. But its island geography also means it’s home to one of the most unique and diverse wildlife populations. In fact, 87% of its mammals, 93% of its reptiles, and 45% of its bird species are endemic to the country and don’t exist anywhere else on the planet.
Don’t underestimate the stocky wombats as they waddle through their native Australia. The expert burrowers can move up to three feet of dirt in one night, carve out tunnel systems 650 feet long, and run up to 25 mph. The marsupials are born the size of a jelly bean and crawl into the mother’s pouch, where they stay for 9 to 10 months. Fun fact: Their droppings are cube-shaped.
Although they’re as cute and cuddly as a teddy bear, koalas aren’t bears — they’re marsupials. And the creatures, which average 20 pounds and can range from 23.5 to 33.5 inches, can be hard to spot since they can sleep 18 to 22 hours a day, high in the branches of the eucalyptus trees — which provide both their shelter and their nourishment. In fact, koalas get everything they need, both food and water, from the eucalyptus leaves. But it does have a major side effect: The leaves are so toxic that their systems crank into overdrive to digest the food, leaving them with little energy to do anything but doze off.
When Bugs Bunny looked up Tasmanian Devil in the encyclopedia, it said, “A strong murderous beast, jaws as powerful as a steel trap — has ravenous appetite.” But the animal found on Australia’s south island state of Tasmania doesn’t quite destroy everything in its path, as it does on Looney Tunes. In fact, an effort was made in 2010 to rebrand the species’ reputation from its unfair animated depiction. Considered Tasmania’s icon, the furry fellow does emit a foul odor, loud screams, and fierce snarls, giving it an aggressive exterior. But the black-and-white mammals, roughly the size of a raccoon, are actually quite solitary creatures — except when they gather with fellow Tasmanian Devils to feed on carcasses, when the seemingly violent sounds come into play. From 1996 to 2008, a rare cancer killed off much of the population, putting it on the endangered list.
There’s another Devil in town — and this Central Australian lizard species called the Thorny Devil definitely has an intimidating presence with its orange, black, and yellow spiky skin and even a fake second head on the back of its neck. Thankfully, they only grow up to about eight inches long and reside in the sandy deserts. While they feed on small black ants, their keratin spikes cleverly serve as a mini aqueduct to funnel the little moisture in the desert air into their mouths so they stay hydrated.
When British explorer Captain James Cook found these marsupial carnivores on Australia’s east coast in 1770, he noted that quoll was its Aboriginal name. Of the four species found in the country, the tiger quoll — also known as the spotted-tailed quoll — is the only one with a pouch. The forest and woodland creature is the largest native carnivore remaining on the mainland.
If it looks like a kangaroo and hops like a kangaroo, it must be a kangaroo, right? Well, kind of. Kangaroos and wallabies are both pouched mammals who stand on their hind legs and are part of the same macropod family of marsupials. Simply put, the difference comes down to size. Kangaroos make up the six largest macropods in the family and are suited for wide open terrain, while smaller wallabies can range from 12 to 41 inches tall with a 10- to 29-inch tail and tend to stay in forested areas.
Take the body and fur of an otter, grab the bill and feet of a duck, tack on a beaver tail, and you’ve pretty much got the Aussie animal known as the platypus. In addition to its hodgepodge of physical features, it’s also a rare egg-laying mammal and thrives both underwater — it’s a toothless bottom-feeder that scoops up insects, shellfish and worms — and on land, where its ability to retract its webbed feet and reveal nails allows it to build burrows. Other unique features? The platypus finds food by sensing electric signals, and the male has a venomous spur on its inside ankle.
While its mesmerizing movements and square body are seemingly graceful, we suggest steering away from the box jellyfish immediately. It’s widely known as the most toxic creature on the planet — its venom is so powerful that it can instantly stun or kill prey by attacking the nervous system, heart, and skin. Mostly found off the northern Aussie coast and in the Indo-Pacific waters, they can also be hard to spot because of their light-blue transparent shade. But make no mistake about how deadly each of the up to 15 tentacles can be — stretching as long as 10 feet each, they can have as many as 5,000 stinging cells.
There’s no doubt that the echidna, commonly referred to as the spiny anteater, defies norms. After all, it's the only other mammal than a platypus that lays eggs. Typically 14 to 30 inches long and weighing 5.5 to 22 pounds, its little face is dominated by a long nose since echidnas navigate with their heightened sense of smell and hearing. But they might be onto something: The creatures have been around in the same form since prehistoric times and can be found in Australia and neighboring New Guinea.
If you need any proof of how much Australians love emus, just look at the more than 600 places that bear its name and the country’s coat of arms with an ode to the flightless running bird. Second in size to only the ostrich, the 4.9- to 6.2-foot-tall birds swim better than they fly, but the emu’s true skill comes in running, with the ability to go up to 30 mph with strides as wide as nine feet. Plus they’re able to jump seven feet high — that’s higher than LeBron James! A windpipe pouch allows emus to make deep grunting noises that can be heard more than a mile away. While they’re most common in Australia, they’re also found in the Philippines, New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands.