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Australia has the most peculiar wildlife of all continents. Imagine the most common native mammals of this land don't run, don't walk, but instead hop around, and what's more carrying their children in a front pocket. Speaking of animals with a pocket, Australia has the most diverse collection of marsupials (academic name of the pocketed mammals) -- total of over 200 species, from the hopping kangaroos and wallabies, the lovable bear-like koalas, to the ferocious dog-size Tasmania devil -- by far the dominant native mammals. Another even more curious group of mammals is the Monotreme. As the name implies, these creatures have only one hole for evacuating (both pee and shit!). What's more, they're the only mammal born from eggs. Members of this group include the duck-bill platypus and the spiny porcupine-like echidna. The distinct collections of Australian mammals is a results of Australia's separation from the major continents some 96 million years ago. Isolated on this hot and arid continent, these mammals branched off from the mainstream of evolution and never looked back since.
Dipping into Australia's shallow sea from its twenty thousand km of coastline, you'll be greeted by incredibly rich marine life. On the northeast shore, stretching some 2,600 km is the largest living structure on earth, the Great Barrier Reef. Its enormous size and the diversity of the ecosystem can be matched only by the tropical forest of the Amazon.
It'll take a lifetime to explore the entire continents and study all these wonderful creatures, especially a good part of the continents, from scorching desert to chokingly dense rain forest, are difficult if not impossible to access. Fortunately, in Sydney you can cover most of these wonderful creatures in a couple days by visiting just 3 places: The Sydney Aquarium, the Sydney Wildlife World, and the Sydney Zoo. The aquarium and the wildlife world are right next to each other, conveniently located in the Darling Harbour -- so just two places to visit practically.
Sydney Aquarium is one of the largest aquarium in the world, accommodating over 6,000 fishes of more than 650 species. It was open in 1988, during Australia's bicentenary celebration.
Near the entrance is the water habitat of the half-bird half-mammal creature, the duck-billed, beaver-tailed, egg-laying, milk-feeding, and single-hole platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Some 17 to 20in long, about the size of a cat, the restless platypus is so bizarre-looking that it's almost a bit cute. But it's probably not a good idea to to fondle the little monotreme, because male platypus has venomous spurs on the rear foot joint and can give you a pretty good sting that could last for months.
The crocodile display. Most note-worthy of them all is the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus, 4 pix except the middle one), the largest living reptile. An adult male can grow up to 20.6 ft (6.3m) in length and weigh up to 1.2 ton (2,600 lbs). A vicious opportunistic predator, it's known to take on all kind of preys, including animals as large as male water buffalos, and unfortunately, human as well. They typical ambush near water, strike explosively, and drag the preys into water, sometime in the blink of an eye.
The Open Ocean Oceanarium is the coolest display in the aquarium. You can walk through the ocean through a glass tube, which bring you to the closest possible distance to marine life without getting wet. It's heart-pounding to watch those toothy sharks and devilish stingrays gliding over your head.
The oceanarium's got the largest shark collection in the world. These toothy giants are the ultimate predator of the ocean. In fact they're so successful that they've roamed the ocean for well over 400 millions years. They saw amphibian leaped onto dry land, dinosaurs came and went, mammals rose into power, and finally, we human dominated the land. Still, sharks stayed on the top of food train in the vast ocean all these ages. Impressive.
More on the oceanarium. Such exquisite and vivid display, make you want to touch and feel the vitality of all these busy marine creatures.
Coral fishes exhibits. We'll soon visit them in the Great Barrier Reef. Here are the commonly seen Butterflyfishes of various kinds. their flat bodies are brightly colored like artists' palettes. They usually pair up and mate for life.
Surgeonfishes is another prosperous group in the reef. The name come from the two forward pointing spines on each end of the tail, as sharp as scalpels. A swipe of tail can produce deep and painful cuts in enemies or careless human. Some surgeonfishes has a "nose" on the forehead, which earn them the name "Unicornfishes." The function of the horn still puzzles marine biologists today.
Clownfishes (Amphiprion ocellaris, 3 pix), is now more commonly known as "Nemo" owing to the popular Pixar animation "Finding Nemo." They always form symbiotic relationship with Sea Anemones. They live on the undigested food of the anemones and in turn feed the anemones with their waste. In the last 2 pix is a Lionfish. The name come from its exceptionally long spins, which are venomous.
These Guitarfishes are Bottom dwellers, with mouth open on the bottom of the flat body. They're the link between rays and sharks.
Seahorses and Seadragons (4 pix) are actually fishes, although they're often mistaken as anything but. In the last pic is a Wrasses. One thing peculiar about wrasses is that many species of them can change sexes as they grow up.
Sydney Wildlife World is attached to the aquarium in Darling Harbour. Completed in 2006, it feature a 1-km walkway that displays 6,000 native animals. At the entrance we're greeted by flocks of butterflies.
In the first pic is not a butterfly but a Hercules Moth (Coscinocera hercules), one of the largest moths in the world.
The most impressive Stick Insect (order Phasmatodea) collection I've ever seen. This is the longest insect in the world, with length up to 33mm.
More insects and arthropods...
Reptiles. In the 1st 2 pix is a Boyd's Forest Dragon (Hypsilurus boydii), often found in a rain forest; in the next 2 pix, a Frill-necked Dragon (Chlamydosaurus kingii). The name come from a large piece of skin folded against the neck. When threaten, the frill spread out and exposes bright orange scales, which hopefully scare off predators. In the last 3 pix are Perenties (Varanus giganteus), the largest lizard in Australia. They can grow up to 2.5m (8ft) long and weight up to 20kg (44 lbs).
Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are popular pets because of their gentle and calm nature. However, when it comes to territorial dispute, they can be vicious too. "Take a bite, for setting that foot on my territory."
The oddly symmetrical Shingleback Lizard (Trachydosaurus rugosus, 2 pix). You have to study closely to tell which end is head, which is tail. Figure it's a good way to confuse the predators. The rest are some of the snake collection, mostly venomous.
Birds. The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) is probably the best known bird in Australia. A closed relative of the ostriches, the Southern cassowary is a huge flightless bird that can reach up to 2m (6'8") in height and about 70kg (154 lbs) in weight. A prominent foamy crest on the head is believed to be a secondary sexual characteristic. It's listed in the Guinness Book of World Record as the "most dangerous bird in the world" because of its long (up to 15cm or 6 inches), extremely sharp, dagger-like inner toes. When it is delivered with a power kick with both feet, the enemy is mostly likely have two long and deep cuts across the belly, watching its bowels spilling all over the places. Fortunately, crossowaries are shy animals and unprovoked attacks by them are very rare. They feed on fruits such as the Cassowary Plum (Cerbera floribunda), shown in the last pic.
Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) is a bulky bird with a strange green face. They can grow up to 1 meter long and 1.5 meter in wingspan. The male typically weigh 5.3 kilo (12 lbs). In the last 3 pix is a colorful Emerald Dove (Chalcophaps indica, 1 pic) and a Rose-crowned Fruit Dove (Ptilinopus regina, last 2 pix), commonly found in Australia's tropic rain forests.
Taronga Zoo of Sydney. The history of the Sydney zoo can be dated back to 1884, respectably long considering Australia is quite a young country. On the shore of Sydney Harbour, the zoo houses some 2,600 animals of 340 species.
Start with the cutest Mammal you can find in this continent, the Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). Also known as koala bear, or tree bear, the koala is a marsupial that lives on trees and feed almost exclusively on eucalypt leaves. This is highly unusual because eucalypt leaves are hardly nutritious and contain toxic phenolic and terpene compounds. To survive on such a lean diet, koala maintains a very low metabolic rate, sleeping through most of the day (up to 18 hrs) and spending most of the waking time feeding. That dozy look and chubby figure, all resemble a little human baby, make the koala quite adorable.
Never got tired of watching the cuties, even when they're dozing.
More marsupial. The hopping Kangaroos and Wallabies (basically smaller species of kangaroos). Note that they use the tail as support, forming a stable tripod with the two legs. A word on marsupials, which is characterized by carrying their new-born in a front pocket. Fossil evidence suggest that the pocket (scholarly known as the marsupium) shares the same origin as the placenta. In a sense all marsupial new-borns are premature. Instead of developing a complex placenta for the fetus and endure a long pregnancy, marsupial chose to give birth prematurely and carry the baby in a pocket to reduce metabolism during pregnancy. This is advantageous in the harsh environment in Australia, the driest and the most extreme in terms of weather of all continents (excluding Antarctica). Short pregnancy and low metabolism help marsupials survive the dry seasons. This is one reason why marsupials thrive in Australia.
Sizes of kangaroos/wallabies vary significantly, from the 1.8-meter-tall Red Kangaroo to the rat-size Quakka (plural quakkas, last 2 pix, a small species of wallaby).
More peculiar mammals. If you think Dingos (Canis lupus dingo, 2 pix) look just like dogs, that's because they were dog a few thousand years ago. Theory has it, dingo were domestic dogs accidentally released to Australia by Asian mariners. The dogs quickly turned wild and spread throughout the continent. In the 3rd pic is a Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus). Although it's hard to find any resemblance in appearance, it's the closest relative you can find to the duck-billed platypus shown above - they're both monotreme. In the last pic is a dozing Tasmania Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). "The devil," as it's often referred to, is the largest surviving marsupial. When not sleeping, it's quite vicious as the name implies.
Birds. The Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the australian equivalent of ostrich, a gentle, flightless big bird. It's the second largest bird in the world after the ostrich. Here in the zoo, you can actually pet them if you have the nerve to.
A Brolga or Australian Crane (Grus rubicunda, 2 pix) is a wetland bird found in tropical and eastern Australia. In the next 2 pix is a Bush Stone-curlew (Burhinus grallarius), with the look of a shore bird but actually a terrestrial predator that feed on small grass animals such as insects, frogs, lizards, and even snakes. In the last pic is a group of Moorhen.
More waterbirds. A family of Plumed Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna eytoni, 3 pix); in the last 2 pix is a Australian Grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae).
In the first 3 pix are Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), a kind of large terrestrial kingfisher. In the next 2 pix, a Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) just caught its lunch. In the last pic is a (Pallid?) Cuckoo.
A pair of Scaly-breasted Lorikeets enjoyed an opened orange (4 pix). In the last pic is a Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus).
Reptiles. A Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni), only found it freshwater of northern Australia. Ferocious as it looks, it's no match for its larger, more aggressive salt water cousin. They can grow up to 3m and weight 90kg (compared to over 6m and 1 ton for saltwater crocodiles), much less of a threat to human. Although they've developed certain tolerance to saltiness, they rarely stay near the river exit near the coast because those are saltwater crocodiles' territories. So if you spot these "freshies" in the wild, you should be relieved because you know most likely there're no saltwater crocodile around.
Turtles (3 pix); in the last 3 pix is a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the largest lizard in the world, measures up to 3 meter in length and weighs up to 166 kilo. It's actually not an Australian native, but from Indonesia (well, close enough).
Here're some local wildlife near Sydney. In the 1st 5 pix is a Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucos). In the last 2 pix is a Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris).
A White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae, 3 pix) and a group of Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus, 3 pix).
A group of Crested Terns (Thalasseus bengalensis, 2 pix); a Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae, 3 pix).
A Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus, 2 pix); a pair of Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena, 2 pix); in the last pic is a Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea).
An Eastern Water Dragon (Physignathus lesueurii). It's a semi-aquatic creature, with a flat tail that can be used a propeller when swimming.
A Purple Rock Crab (Leptograpsus variegatus).
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