A suite of well-known Australian mammals do the heavy lifting on behalf of the continent’s unique fauna.
These icons are instantly-recognisable, they lead the way in keeping the uniqueness, ecological roles, management challenges and economic value of native mammals in the public arena. They lend themselves to local, national and international advertising, interact with human rock stars and heads of state, serve as state and national faunal emblems, decorate our currency and even appear on the Australian coat-of-arms.
The howling of dingoes around a campfire in central Australia, possums on the roof in some of Australia’s largest cities or kangaroos on a golf course are some of the most common situations when people encounter native mammals. Echidnas and numbats are active during the day just like humans, while wombats and platypus can be readily viewed at dusk. Echidnas and brushtail possums in particular are well known because they have broad geographical distributions, inhabiting a wide range of ecosystems from the tropics to the eastern highlands to arid west and central Australia.
Poll for your favourite Rock Star here.
Read about mesmerising marine mammals and vote for them here.
Australia’s iconic mammal species are a taxonomically diverse group, with representatives of all three phylogenetic linages of mammals: the monotremes (platypus and echidna), marsupials (kangaroos, koala, possum, numbat, wombat) and placental mammals (dingo), highlighting the uniqueness of Australia’s mammal fauna and their diverse origins.
Marsupials arrived in Australia from the northern hemisphere via South American and Antarctica and then enjoyed an extended period of isolated evolution on the island continent, while the dingo is a more recent arrival. The monotremes likely evolved right here in the southern hemisphere. It is only in Australia and New Guinea that we can see egg-laying monotremes, pouched marsupials, and placental mammals all together (I have even seen all three simultaneously in a single field of view of my binoculars!).
Management of these iconic species generates robust scientific and political debate, with conflicting issues of welfare, economics and conservation. They have aroused considerable controversy with respect to controlling their numbers and those of their competitors and predators, exploiting economic opportunities, managing ecosystems, and regulating populations. Indeed, for some such as the dingo, even their very identity and their status as an Australian mammal species is controversial.
Red and grey kangaroos are examples of the few native species commercially harvested for direct economic benefit, while other mammals provide important ecosystem services. Burrowing species such as wombats, echidnas and the numbat are ecosystem engineers, promoting soil fertility by the action of their digging, while dingoes impact the numbers of feral predator competitors and herbivore prey, in turn influencing numbers of small mammals and even vegetation cover.
We use these icons unashamedly to promote Australia on the global stage as a destination of choice, which in turn cements our international obligations to manage and conserve Australian biodiversity; we are guardians of the world’s most unique fauna.
Vote for Australia’s mammalian rock stars and show appreciation for the heavy lifting they do on behalf of all our unique fauna.
The nominees for most iconic Rock Star mammal are:
Red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus), arid and semi-arid habitats throughout mainland Australia
The largest surviving marsupial, the red kangaroo has a boom and bust ecology, taking advantage of favourable environmental conditions to reproduce when food is abundant.
Dingo (Canis dingo or Canis familiaris), most of Australia except Tasmania.
Australia’s successful native dog which generates more controversy and debate than any other Australian species.
Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), eastern Australia (but not Tasmania).
Australia’s most widely-recognised mammal, koalas are reliant on eucalypt trees to provide both a refuge from predators and their diet of leaves, for which they have a highly specialised digestive system.
Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), Western Australia
Taxonomically, morphologically and behaviourally unique termite-eating, sun-basking marsupial that doesn’t have a pouch.
Common brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), forests, woodland and urban areas of all states and territories.
Australia’s most successful urban marsupial, this nocturnal, arboreal species has an adaptable diet and if no tree hollows are available to nest in, they will make use of house roofs.
Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), Australia’s most widespread mammal, inhabiting almost all terrestrial habitats.
An unmistakable, highly adaptable, spiny egg-laying mammal that feeds on a diet of ants and termites.
Eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus), eastern third of the Australian continent.
An abundant and familiar macropod which tolerates a wide range of environmental conditions. Highly efficient bipedal hopping, where the tendons of the large hind legs act like springs, save energy.
Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), eastern Australia from Queensland to Tasmania.
The platypus lays eggs, is semi-aquatic, venomous, biofluorescent, uses electroreception, has webbed feet, a duck-like bill and a beaver-shaped tail. Mammals don’t get more unusual than this; it is so unusual that the first specimen viewed by European scientists was thought to be a fake.
Bare-nosed wombat (Vombatus ursinus), eastern Australia from Queensland to Tasmania.
Wombats dig extensive burrow systems, which they use to shelter from inclement weather and save energy and water. Their incisors grow continuously to facilitate grazing.
Polling to determine the finalists of Australian Mammal of the Year is now closed. The Top Ten finalists will be announced on Monday 15 August and final voting for the Mammal of the Year will begin!
Originally published by Cosmos as The Rock Stars – why our incredible mammal icons deserve your vote
Dr Christine Cooper is a research and teaching academic at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. She specialises in the environmental and conservation physiology of mammals and birds, with a particular interest in the biology of ant and termite-eating mammals.
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