Australia is home to a wide variety of amazing mammals across all habitat types, but none are more impressive than those found on Australia’s highest peaks. Animals living in the alpine zones of Victoria and New South Wales have adapted to survive in the toughest, most changeable and most hostile of environments. During summer, temperatures can soar under our relentless sun, while during winter, the area drops below freezing and is blanketed by a thick layer of snow and ice.
The mammals of the alps come in all shapes and sizes, with more than 40 species from Australian mammal groups found in these areas. This includes larger mammals such as the solidly built common (bare-nosed) wombat that can weigh up to 40kg, down to the tiny and the well named agile antechinus at about 20g. Not only are they agile, but these carnivorous marsupials are remarkable – every year, following an intense two-week breeding season, every male antechinus dies from stress! The females, of course, have to live on as single mothers raising up to 10 young on their own. Microbats are even smaller, with some as tiny as 5g. They flit through the night catching insects on the wing in the warmer months. The spotted-tailed quoll, Australia’s second biggest extant carnivorous marsupial after the Tasmanian devil, slips through the wind-swept snow gums hunting for its next meal.
Animals in the alpine zone have evolved to survive in areas where many cannot. Many species have beautifully thick fur, such as the bobuck (mountain brushtail possum) and the famous alpine dingo (especially important as the apex predator of the region). Eastern wallaroos, which were only recently discovered on Victoria’s highest boulderfields, have specially designed feet to grip to rocky screes, along with spectacularly shaggy fur. Endangered smoky mice nest communally in underground burrows to share body heat, avoid the frost, and keep warm with their thick blue-smoke-coloured fur. The beautiful, but threatened, broad-toothed rat engineers and maintains extensive above-ground tunnel systems that allow travel and feeding even when the snow lies heavily over the thick vegetation. Multiple species, including dark-furred dusky antechinus and gentle bush rats also rely on these tunnels, and must be very thankful for their chubby-cheeked tunnel-constructing neighbours! Some animals, like the Gould’s wattled bat and short-beaked echidna, enter a deep hibernation over winter, and just as well too; an echidna would be a spiky commuter to meet at a snow-covered tunnel!
Perhaps the most famous alpine mammal is Australia’s only mammal found exclusively in the alpine zone – the critically endangered mountain pygmy-possum. In weight, they are Australia’s biggest losers – and gainers! Every autumn, these tiny and tough marsupials double their body weight (up to about 80g) in preparation for their winter slumber. Impressively, they can drop their metabolism by 98% and their body temperature to just 2-3°C! They are perfectly adapted to their icy habitat, but sadly are one of Australia’s most critically endangered species.
Just like the precious possums, many species in the alps are threatened with extinction, including the long-footed potoroo and platypus, alongside endangered and critically endangered neighbours of other taxa – northern and southern corroboree frogs, Baw Baw frogs, alpine she-oak skinks and alpine stone-flies, to name a few. Threats include habitat destruction and fragmentation, introduced predators (especially feral cats and foxes), introduced herbivores (such as pigs, horses and deer), climate change, and increasing incidence of bushfires.
The bogong moth, which migrates up to 1000km to the alps and back again every year, was added to the IUCN endangered species list in 2021. The entire alpine ecosystem relies on the nutrients the moths bring each year and the collapse in their population (by an estimated 99.5% in 2017-18) is a catastrophe for the moths, the alpine environment, and the animals that rely on their arrival each spring. But there is hope. Everyone can help by turning off unnecessary lights to assist the migration of the bogong moth and help track migration of the moth via citizen science website Moth Tracker.
The alps and the species that call our snow-covered peaks home are amazing and tough, but they are also fragile and facing a myriad of threats. Together we can help to conserve this icy wonderland and Australia’s most marvelous mammals.
Meet the nominees!
Agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis), south-eastern mainland Australia
They breed for 1-3 weeks in July or August, after which all the males die in an event known as “the die-off”.
Bare-nosed wombat (Vombatus ursinus), south-eastern Australia including Tasmania
They have only two incisor teeth in their upper and lower jaw, which never stop growing.
Broad-toothed rat (Mastacomys fuscus), south-eastern Australia including Tasmania
Because they eat so much grass, their poop is bright green when fresh – an uncommon shade among rodent scats!
Bush rat (Rattus fuscipes), coastal QLD, NSW, SA, WA, and Victoria.
By restoring their populations in North Head Sanctuary in Sydney, bush rats have reclaimed the territory from introduced black rats.
Dingo (Canis dingo or Canis familiaris), mainland Australia
They can jump 2 metres vertically and scale fences.
Dusky antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii), south-eastern QLD to south-western Victoria, and Tasmania
Adult duskies lead a solitary life, socialising only during mating and when mothers are raising young.
Little forest bat (Vespadelus vulturnus), south-eastern Australia including Tasmania
Male little forest bats are bachelors and prefer to live alone, but the females tend to roost together in small groups from 20 to 120 individuals.
Mountain brushtail possum (Trichosurus cunninghami), south-eastern mainland Australia
Also known as the bobuck, they spend more time on the ground than most other possums.
Mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus), three populations in Bogong High Plains and Mt Buller in Victoria and Mt Kosciuzko in New South Wales.
They hibernate for 5-7 months every year under the snow, during which they lose half of their body weight.
Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), mainland Australia and Tasmania
Australia’s most widely distributed native mammal, echidnas have the largest prefrontal cortex relative to body size of any mammal.
Smoky mouse (Pseudomys fumeus), south-eastern mainland Australia
They build complex, multichambered burrow systems up to 25 metres long, where they live in closely bonded family units.
Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), eastern mainland Australia
They have a taste for above and below-ground fungi, which is important for maintaining ecosystem health – especially in areas where other fungi-eating mammals are absent or extinct.