There are around 350 species of native mammals currently recognised in Australia, and a further 30 classed as extinct. Australia is also home to 33 introduced mammals, including ourselves, the humans.
Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, with more species of mammals than 93 per cent of other countries, and has more endemic land mammals than any other country. Many of these are internationally recognised, like the Koala and the Red and Grey Kangaroo, while others, like the Platypus, mystified the scientific world when it was first sent to the museums of England. Yet the bulk of the mammals in Australia are seldom observed by the general public, scurrying through the undergrowth at night, or flying through the skies once the sun goes down, or concealed for most of their day beneath the surface of the oceans, and some even dig holes in our precious lawns while we sleep. Some Australian mammals are tiny, weighing only a few grams and about the same size as the tea bag I am just putting in my cup, while others, the wider roaming ocean dwellers, include the largest animal ever to live, the Blue Whale, weighing up to 200 tonnes and measuring around 30 metres in length.
Australia’s mammal fauna has been shaped from around 40 million years of isolation from the other continents in the world. The monotremes and marsupials have a higher percentage of endemics than the bats and rodents, with the latter likely to be much more recent arrivals in Australia (perhaps as recent as 1 million years ago). Prior to this, as with other continents, mammal megafauna roamed Australia during the Miocene, Pliocene and Pelistocene. Animals like Procoptodon goliah (a 200kg, 2 metre tall kangaroo), Zygomarturus trilobus (a 500kg, 2.5 metre long ‘wombat-like’ diprotodontid), Thylacoleo carnifex (a 160kg, 1.5 metre long marsupial lion) and Zaglossus hacketti (a 30 kg, 1 metre tall echidna) would have roamed Australia along with the early Aboriginals. What caused their extinction is subject to much debate, with the latest evidence suggesting that many may have been hunted to extinction around 45,000 years ago, with the extinction of the remaining species linked to the last ice age, which occurred at the end of the Pleistocene, around 13,000 years ago.
Perhaps the most famous extinct Australian mammal is the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, Thylacinus cyanocephalus, that was persecuted by farmers for eating their sheep and had a bounty of £1 per adult and 10/- (shillings) per young placed on it by the Tasmanian Government in 1888, to encourage hunters to cull their numbers. The last known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936, and, despite numerous reported sightings, both in Tasmania and on mainland Australia (the most recent of these made in early 2017 from Cape York Peninsula), no evidence has been found to confirm its continued existence.
Follow the family links below to the individual species fact sheets:
- Striped possum, Leadbeater’s Possum and Lesser Gliders
- Ring-tailed Possums and Greater Gliders
- Cuscuses and Brush-tailed Possums
- Bettongs and Potoroos
- Kangaroos and Wallabies
- Rats and Mice
- Old World Fruit Bats
- Ghost Bat
- Eared Seals
- Horses and Asses
- Right Whales