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Australian Wildlife After Dark

Australian Wildlife After Dark

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Australian Wildlife After Dark

261 pages
2 hours
Apr 1, 2016


Australia is a land of many unique animals, some of which are active only during the cooler evening and night-time and so are rarely seen. These are the after dark animals so widespread yet so little noticed by humans, whether in our backyards, the arid desert, woodlands or rainforest.

Australian Wildlife After Dark brings this hidden fauna into the light. The after dark fauna includes a surprising diversity of familiar (and some not-so-familiar) species, from cockroaches, moths and spiders through to bandicoots, bats and birds – and then some.

Each example is described in a unique, friendly style by Martyn Robinson, familiar to many Australians through his frequent media appearances on ABC Radio and in Burke’s Backyard magazine, and Bruce Thomson, an internationally renowned wildlife photographer and bat researcher. The book includes stunning photography and boxes that highlight selected topics, such as the ‘windscreen wiper’ eyelids of geckoes and the strategies used by night-time plants to attract pollinators. Also included are practical tips on finding nocturnal wildlife, a glossary of scientific terms and a short bibliography.

The book will appeal to a general family audience, wildlife enthusiasts, bushwalkers, amateur naturalists, national parks lovers, natural history museum visitors, libraries, gift book buyers and international visitors to Australia.

Apr 1, 2016

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Australian Wildlife After Dark - Bruce Thomson


Preface and acknowledgements

Many of our overseas visitors are surprised at how few animals they see in Australia’s bushland, as other countries generally have a much higher number of diurnal (day-active) mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates than we do. Even Australians who are aware that many of our animals are nocturnal often don’t realise the full scale or the diversity of these night-time prowlers. We hope this book will encourage a better understanding of and interest in the largest proportion of Australia’s fauna – those that are more active after dark than they are at other times of the day.

Australian Wildlife After Dark is not written as a field guide but as a description of the diversity of these nocturnal animals, how they live their lives, find food and mates, and avoid being eaten in the darkness. Sight is by no means the most common way of achieving all this and some use senses we cannot imagine, although we can understand the processes behind them!

Although many people are unaware of the magnitude of nocturnal life, they usually express great interest in these animals when they do encounter them. The information boxes included in this book answer common questions, often not addressed in conventional field guides, which people ask about these animals. We have included a mix of common answers to enquiries and some more obscure points.

Some people are curious to see nocturnal animals during the night-time when they are active and this prompted the section at the end of the book on how to do this. Watching animals at night is not necessarily easy and the watching may affect their behaviour, so that the animals display reactive rather than natural behaviour. As in most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to watch nocturnal animals, so we hope that this will prevent you from making some of the mistakes we made when we started out.

The book is by no means a comprehensive list of the after-dark fauna or their ways of life. In part, this is because they are often poorly known or infrequently observed. Only further observation can confirm whether a certain behaviour is common and characteristic or a ‘one off’. There must also be many new behaviours waiting to be discovered. Similarly, photographs of animals, even relatively common ones, indulging in interesting behaviour at night are much rarer than the ‘portrait shots’ of these same animals in daylight. So it is finally hoped that the book will encourage others to start observing, recording and photographing their encounters with the life that is active in twilight and darkness!

This book has actually been a long time in coming to print and has changed in several ways over the years. A number of people have helped with earlier versions or provided images which were not used and we thank all these people for their time. The current version involved Brendan Atkins, Deb White, Briana Melideo, Lauren Webb, Tracey Millen, Anne Findlay, the scientific and visitor services sections of the Australian Museum and the members of the public who sent in their enquiries and observations. The photographs which were not taken by Bruce Thomson were supplied by Chris Lang, R. Jessop, Stewart Macdonald, Henry Cook and Stuart Humphreys. Lastly thanks also to our long-suffering partners, Lynne and Sue, who have helped us check text and take and select photographs, and have listened to the tap, tap, tap of a keyboard long into the night!

Chapter 1


Australia is a land of many unique animals. The number of endemic (found nowhere else) families and species in Australia is one of the world’s highest.

Australia also has an extremely low number of diurnal mammals (those that are active by day) compared with the rest of the world. The Numbat of south-western Western Australia, and Musky Rat Kangaroo of north-eastern Queensland, are among the few almost exclusively so.

Why are so many species nocturnal (active by night)? For us humans, being primarily adapted to a daytime existence, we might find it rather odd that such a large number of our native animals are so different. What great advantages does being nocturnal bestow? The answer is complex and with many shades of grey, for no single major advantage can be identified that explains all.

One important factor is our climate. Because Australia has a very hot dry climate for much of the year, many of our animals prefer to come out at night when it is comparatively humid and cool. But being a successful denizen of the night also has fostered the evolution of some extraordinary features.

Just like us, most animals rely on their senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch to survive in their environment – to find food, avoid being eaten and find a mate.

In the following chapters you will meet a variety of Australian animals and learn how, and in some cases why, they prefer the ‘night shift’ to the ‘day shift’. We have grouped them according to their senses or abilities, rather than the usual classification of relatedness, because these are the features they share and how they are best adapted to the way of life they lead. In several cases the species mentioned may be the only nocturnal member of a genus, or even a whole family, of an otherwise diurnal (daytime-active) group of species (the Letter-winged Kite, Elanus scriptus, is a good example of this, see pages 23 and 24). In other cases totally unrelated species are included in the same section because of convergence, where – due to a similar way of life – they share remarkable similarities. Examples are owls and nightjars, which look and act very alike with silent flight, huge eyes and highly mobile heads (as it is easier to move the head to look at things, than move those big eyes in their sockets); yet these birds are not closely related but have become similar due to the same way of life requiring the same features.

The book is not designed as a field guide, but more of a ‘lifestyle options’ guide to the nocturnal Australian fauna, and how and why they do what they do. In the last section is a chapter explaining how to see these animals, without causing too much discomfort to either them or yourself, if you wish to observe them first-hand. Many of these animals are poorly known or understood – but unless we meet them under their own conditions, our knowledge will always remain fleeting.

Daytime, night-time or undecided?

There are several Australian animals that we commonly see by day, such as Koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies, although much of their activity occurs at night. Some, like this Echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, alternate between daytime activity patterns in cooler weather and mainly nocturnal activity in the heat of summer. This is also reflected in our ‘cold-blooded’ fauna, with some species like many diurnal snakes and even the larger goannas becoming almost crepuscular (active at twilight times) during periods of extreme heat. Australia has more than 114 species of the world’s 800 or so geckoes and all of ours are nocturnal in habits, despite a great diversity of behaviour and appearance among them. Overseas, including in nearby New Zealand, there are several diurnal gecko species. Most of our frogs are nocturnal, too, as well as most of our snakes – even the majority of the diurnal species indulge in some crepuscular or nocturnal activity. Vast numbers of insects and other invertebrates that are active at night sustain these insectivorous vertebrate armies, as well as feeding on one another, depending on what they are. Vegetarians and omnivores, like Koalas, wombats, bandicoots and rodents, also seek out their foods when darkness falls and the temperatures are cooler. Nocturnal and crepuscular birds, such as owls, nightjars and some of the waders, can be found anywhere in Australia, including the cities. Several other diurnal birds will call at night adding to the symphony of voices during a still evening.

Echidnas, Tachyglossus aculeatus, can vary their behaviour to suit the prevailing conditions. For much of the year they are nocturnal. They are around 35–40 cm in length.

Some of our plants even bloom at night or produce heavier nectar supplies then to make use of some members of this mixed nocturnal population to pollinate them. The Hoya vine, Hoya carnosa, with its waxy leaves and flowers can withstand very dry conditions and is certainly visited by nectar-feeding insects during the daytime. However, at night the nectar and odour production is considerably more pronounced. Even our most abundant and successful group of trees, the Eucalypts, follow this pattern.

Chapter 2

Evening and dawn

A parade of species

Euros and Red Kangaroos

As dusk forms and the day starts to cool, several large animals begin to emerge from the shade of bushes and rocky hills. The largest of the native species are various kangaroo or wallaby species, ready to start foraging on the grasses and other vegetation. Euros, Macropus robustus, are relatively sedentary and will spend much of their lives around a patch of rocky hills. These sturdy, stocky kangaroos know all the best paths to escape within their home range and are well able to bound nimbly straight up rocky hillsides. Euros are also tough and aggressive enough to put up a good fight against their many predators. They can exist on a wide variety of vegetation and can manage to find enough to eat even when the plants appear to be coarse, dry and unappetising. While they get much of their water requirements from the plants they eat, they still seek out water whenever it is available.

By contrast, the Red Kangaroo, Macropus rufus, is a nomad following the flush of new growth that springs up after the infrequent rains and will travel great distances to find it. Early settlers were well aware that the Red Kangaroo’s stomach contents were bright green, often in contrast to the surrounding dead, dry-looking grass, as a result of all the fresh foliage it sought out. Out on the open plains the Red Kangaroo relies on speed to escape predators and its great height allows it to see most threats from some distance away. Both the Euros and the Red Kangaroos are active mainly at dusk and night-time when it is much cooler. During the heat of the day, the animals sit in the shade and lick their arms to cool themselves by evaporation.

Both species are capable of breeding soon after a substantial fall of rain to make use of the good conditions to follow. Euro and Red Kangaroo populations can rise rapidly due to them being able to have one pouch young, one joey old enough to follow on foot but still suckling, and one embryo in a delayed state of development waiting to be born, all at the same time – a sort of reproductive ‘conveyer belt’. Clearly both the stay-at-home and the nomadic lifestyles enable these two large species to survive well in Australia’s dry interior.

The Euro or Wallaroo, Macropus robustus, usually keeps to the shady places in the rocky hills and emerges at dusk to feed. This stocky kangaroo is around 1.3 m head and body length, with a tail of 36 cm.

The Red Kangaroo, Macropus rufus, can travel long distances at night to reach areas of recent rain and new growth. It is the largest living marsupial averaging 1.6 m head and body length, tail about 1 m long, and weighs around 92 kg.

Mareeba Rock-wallabies

Other rocky outcrop specialists are the rock-wallabies like this Mareeba Rock-wallaby, Petrogale mareeba. This is one of the cryptic species which, although well known, wasn’t recognised as a distinct species until 1992. Rock-wallabies in general are small, agile members of the kangaroo family. Their roughened foot pads and long tails enable them to bound up and through piles of boulders and cliff edges in a manner that seems to defy gravity. Away from the rocks, however, rock-wallabies are vulnerable and can be easily run down by predators like Dingoes, Canis lupus dingo, or snatched up by large birds of prey like Wedge-tailed Eagles, Aquila audax. As a result, rock-wallabies generally remain close to their rocky habitats, only descending to the lower slopes to feed on the grasses and leaves of shrubs when dusk arrives and darkness falls. They usually cannot even risk a trek to a nearby creek, so most of their moisture requirements come from the vegetation they eat. Eagles, pythons, Dingoes, the larger goannas, and especially the introduced foxes and cats, can have a major impact on their numbers. Goats can also compete with rock-wallabies in two ways – by eating all the food that they rely on, and by chasing them out of the rocky shelters in the heat of the day so that they are at the mercy of the sun and passing birds of prey. The Mareeba Rock-wallaby is classified as rare in Queensland mainly due to its very restricted distribution. Despite that, these animals are quite tough and are often able to maintain their numbers very well if feral animals are removed. Usually seen at dusk, rock-wallabies can sometimes be seen in the early mornings and late afternoons, taking advantage of the warm sun as this mother and her joey are doing before the night’s foraging starts.

The Mareeba Rock-wallaby, Petrogale mareeba, is one of a number of small, agile, nocturnal wallabies that are restricted to certain isolated rocky mountainous areas of Australia. Their excellent night vision is needed so they can hop across gaps and cliffs at night without falling. They are around 90 cm in total length of which 45–50 cm is their tail.

Rufous Bettongs

Another small relative

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