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Jan. 09, 2012

Welcome to Australia!

by Kaitlyn Gerber

Click to enlarge images

By Kaitlyn Gerber, Carleton College

I'm here!

The city of Brisbane at night

The city of Brisbane from afar.

At the sanctuary, we could feed and pet several kangaroos, including this Eastern Grey Kangaroo. Larger species of kangaroos can jump as fast as 44 mph!

Exactly a week ago, I arrived in Brisbane, Australia after close to 40 hours of travel. There was no time to sleep, though -- we arrived at 8 in the morning and got to work after roughly 48 hours with no sleep. When you travel to Australia, you lose a day because you cross the international dateline. We also have very limited internet here, so this is the first time I’ve been able to put up a post; fortunately, the place we are now has some (admittedly spotty) wireless. Since I’m here studying ecology (we start marine ecology this week!), I’m going to put up some more detailed information of Australian flora and fauna in my next few posts. For now, however, here’s a basic overview of the ecology of the Land Down Under.

Australia’s climate is pretty different from ours -- it’s a lot more unpredictable, for starters. The vast majority of Australia cycles through periodic droughts and rainstorms, depending on the El Niño and La Niña phenomena. As a result, many of the plants and creatures that inhabit the continent are adapted to these conditions.

My friend Jeff and I were lucky enough to pet an emu, Australia's largest native bird.

The vast majority of Australia's creatures are endemic, meaning that they are found in Australia and nowhere else. This includes over 80% of all mammals and reptiles, as well as over 90% of fish and insects. In particular, one notable fact is that Australia actually has three different types of mammals: placental mammals, marsupials, and monotremes. Placental mammals, or those that bear live young, are the most common type of mammal in the world; they include foxes, bears, dogs, cats, and pretty much any American mammal you can think of off of the top of your head. On the other hand, monotremes, including the all-famous platypus, are mammals that lay eggs. Australia currently has the only two types of monotremes in the world: the platypus and the echidna. I actually saw a platypus on my third day here. We went to a koala reserve where a platypus was on display. It was, admittedly, quite awesome.

I was lucky enough to hold a male koala while I was at Lone Pine. This young guy is called Wisely.

Speaking of koalas, they represent Australia's third kind of mammal: marsupials! One of the unique aspects of Australia is that it is dominated by marsupial, rather than placental, mammals. Marsupials give birth to live young as well, but they are only partially developed, so they make their way into a small pouch on their mother's underside, where they suckle and finish their development. Nearly 70 percent of all known marsupial species live in Australia, including the well-known kangaroos, and koalas, both of which I got to meet the other day!

A few days after landing we visited Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, near Brisbane. Lone Pine is the world's first -- and largest -- koala sanctuary in the world. Containing over 130 koalas, the sanctuary also contains other Australian wildlife, including several types of macropods (the group that includes kangaroos and wallabies), tasmanian devils, lorikeets, and emu. I was fortunate enough to be able to both pet a kangaroo and hold a koala, two experiences that were pretty awesome. Speaking of koalas, I learned a few interesting facts about them while I was there:

1. Although many people call them "koala bears," koalas are not in fact related to bears because they are marsupials.

A baby koala born at Lone Pine.

2. Koalas only eat certain species of eucalyptus leaves, which are extremely low in nutrients. As a result, koalas eat a LOT of leaves (they can eat for up to five hours a day!), and usually spend at least 16 to 18 hours a day sleeping to concern energy.

3. Baby koalas are called joeys, just like kangaroos.

I've got to run -- we have a field lecture soon -- but I'll be back soon with some more information on Australian animals, plants, and more! In the meantime, enjoy some photos from the beautiful land down under.

About Kaitlyn Gerber

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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