National Geographic: Australias Animal Mysteries


With the coming of each new dawn,

shadows of an ancient past echo

across Australia

land of eternal mystery.

Alien and remote for

countless centuries,

it remains today an

almost mystical land...

a land only recently disturbed

by the arrival of man.

Long before the time of man,

there appeared here creatures

among the most bizarre on Earth.

So unlike other animals are they

that many early European explorers

could hardly believe they were real.

Even today, three centuries later,

many of the questions the animals

pose to science remain unanswered.

Throughout Australia, investigators

and scientists probe the secrets

of this infinitely varied wildlife.

Animals once dubbed "living fossils"

have been properly identified

and categorized, their evolutionary

relationships better understood.

Yet, inevitably, there remain more

questions than answers

haunting, ago-old mysteries that beckon

all who behold the spectacle of life

unique to Australian shores.

Washed by the South Pacific on the

east and the Indian Ocean on the west,

Australia stretches for almost

three million square miles.

It is the world's smallest continent,

the largest island

a self-contained biological laboratory

unique in the world.

Science has long been puzzled

by how and why this island-continent

became home to what is probably the

most distinctive assemblage

of creatures found anywhere in the world.

Part of the answer lies in

Australia's remoteness,

its geographic separation

from the rest of the world.

Cut off from the Earth's

great landmasses,

Australia has evolved in seabound

isolation for some 50 million years,

its wildlife relatively undisturbed

by influences from the outside.

But the world as we know it today

does not hold all the answers

to Australia's past.

We must look to a distant time in

the Earth's geological history

when the continents were joined.

Scientists believe that somewhere

in the continents we know today

as the Americas, Antarctica,

and Australia,

the earliest marsupials

evolved and fanned out.

When the landmass split apart,

the continents carried

their life-forms with them.

However, in South America, predators

and competitors for food

eventually wiped out a great

number of marsupial species.

In Antarctica they became

frozen out of existence.

Only in Australia,

safely cut off from competitors,

could these unique creatures flourish.

And until the relatively late

arrival of man,

they evolved, for the most part,

undisturbed for millions of years.

Even today, Australia's human

population is only 141/2 million,

and because much of the interior

is a harsh, arid land,

the large cosmopolitan

centers cluster on the coasts.

A common myth about "Down Under"

is that one can see kangaroos

hopping down the streets of Sydney.

Yet it is quite likely that many of

these people have never even seen one,

and perhaps never will, outside a zoo.

Zoos and sanctuaries are popular

attractions throughout Australia.

Here, tame animals

provide the opportunity

for an intimate look at some of

the country's most treasured resources.

Most of the kangaroos at this sanctuary

have been raised here as orphans...

their mothers the victims of

automobiles or a hunter's gun.

Under the watchful eye of a keeper,

the joeys, as young kangaroos are called,

can be cared for until old enough to

be on their own in the park.

I'm going to put him in a bag.

A pillowcase is an ample substitute

for the mother's pouch.

Good joey. That's a baby.

Sit square on. Put two hands one on

top of the other.

Perhaps number one of any popularity

poll is Australia's pride and joy,

the cuddlesome koala.

...Straight over your shoulder

towards the camera.

Chin up. And thank you.

Okay miss, just watching me, please.

Oh, you've got a beautiful smile,

dimples and all.

How about that, eh?

Captured young,

koalas come to accept humans.

Even in the wild, they are basically

unaggressive if undisturbed.

Life for the wild koala revolves in

and around forests of eucalyptus trees

throughout eastern Australia.

On the ground just to move from

tree to tree,

the koala spends almost all

its time high in the branches.

It has developed highly

specialized adaptations

for its arboreal life...

long arms, well-padded paws,

and opposable thumbs with

a vice-like grip.

Not only home and shelter,

eucalyptus trees provide the koala

with its primary food.

It eats about two pounds of leaves a day.

Despite superficial resemblance,

the so-called koala "bear"

is not a bear at all,

but a true marsupial a

pouched animal like the kangaroo.

After birth the young will stay in the

mother's pouch for about six months.

When strong enough to leave the pouch,

it will do so only intermittently,

and for the next few months will

travel everywhere with its mother,

clinging either to her back or chest.

The koala has inspired myriad reactions

from observers over the centuries.

One author has written:

"The koala's expression always reminds

me of a Byzantine Madonna

or some dowager duchess...

rather bored, well-fed and well-bred...

But many aborigines saw something

quite different

to them the koala represented

the reincarnation

of the spirits of lost children.

A research team from Queensland's

National Parks and Wildlife Service

is studying the koala's ecology and

reproduction in the wild.

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