The ultimate wildlife guide to Australia

Where to see iconic and lesser-known species in this biodiverse country

Australia is one of the planet’s top wildlife destinations. Its vast scale results in a wide variety of species and habitats across its rainforests, deserts, wetlands and mountains. Separated from the other continents for more than 30 million years, much of the wildlife you’ll find here is endemic, adding to its appeal.  

The Aussie classics

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Tourism Australia

The species

Australia is most famous for its marsupials, the largest of which are kangaroos. With few natural predators, they outnumber people in Australia. Tasmanian devils are carnivorous marsupials, known for baring their teeth and growling when they feel threatened. Koalas couldn’t be more different. These sleepy arboreal marsupials consume up to a kilo of eucalyptus leaves every day; this diet explains why they have so little energy. Wombats are the koala’s closest relative; stout diggers, they’re the largest burrowing mammals on the planet.

Where to spot them

Kangaroos aren’t fussy where they hop: golf courses, vineyards and beaches are all fair game. For reliable sightings in the wild, try Namadgi National Park near Canberra, Sydney’s Pebble Beach or the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges in Victoria. For a close-up koala encounter, visit a wildlife rescue like Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary near Brisbane or spy them hiding among the rugged national parks of South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula. Tasmania’s Maria Island has sizeable populations of wombats, Forester kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Although, you’ll improve your chances of an encounter with the latter if you visit sanctuaries such as Bonorong or Devils@Cradle.

Top Audley tip

"Book an immersive tour at Devils@Cradle. Situated on the fringe of Cradle Mountain National Park, this conservation project is working hard to eradicate the contagious devil facial tumour disease that threatens this species. You can see the good work they do for yourself with a guided tour, seeing its breeding reserve and meeting a Tasmanian devil up close."

Lesser-known favourites

The species

Lesser-known species include quolls – feisty, furry marsupials that are often tree-climbing den dwellers. The tammar wallaby is similarly tricky to find. Nocturnal, these small wallabies hang out in groups to reduce the chance of being picked off by predators like dingoes and foxes. Quenda, also known as western brown bandicoots, are about the size of a small rabbit. They’re sometimes mistaken for rats, though they’re tubbier with shorter tails and brown fur. Meanwhile, water dragons are Australia’s largest dragon lizard.

Where to spot them

For spotted tail quolls try Tasmania, specifically Cradle Mountain National Park and the Arthur River area; eastern quolls inhabit Mount Field National Park. The tammar wallaby is native to South and Western Australia. Declining numbers make it hard to spot on the mainland, but you’ll find some on Kangaroo Island. Quenda are rarely seen outside parts of Western Australia. Usually, they’re found sniffing around in parks and gardens within urban and suburban areas. Another city-dweller is the water dragon. It’s active near healthy waterways in the Sydney area from September to June, retreating to burrows during the cooler winter months.

Top Audley tip

"Tammar wallabies emerge to graze at dusk in grassy areas. While it’s tempting to park up by the roadside to watch, be careful not to spook these timid creatures near traffic."

Creatures of the Outback

The species

The term bush encompasses many habitats. Echidnas snuffle about in most of them, though they especially like hollow logs and holes among tree roots. These short-beaked creatures are monotremes, like platypuses, meaning they are mammals that lay eggs. Sugar gliders too prefer woodlands. These extraordinary possums, despite only being about as big as the palm of your hand, can fly up to 50 metres. Cockatoos also like to make their presence felt, conspicuous wherever there are trees.

Where to spot them

Echidnas are typically shy creatures. Nevertheless, follow Dove Lake’s boardwalk beneath Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter one. Find them in East Gippsland as well, sniffing out ants and termites from rotten tree stumps. You might also see sugar gliders here; they’re partial to the black wattles and eucalypts found in this part of Victoria. See these agile and graceful creatures in the Daintree Rainforest too, particularly close to sunset. Meanwhile, over in New South Wales, crackles of sulphur-crested cockatoos are frequently seen – and heard – in Sydney as you stroll through the city’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

Top Audley tip

"Don’t travel to Sydney’s Cockatoo Island, formerly a prison, in the hope of seeing these noisy birds – there aren’t any, despite its misleading name."

Marine marvels

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Tourism Australia

Credit: Kirsty Faulkner

Credit: Kirsty Faulkner

Credit: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

Credit: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

The species

Australia’s waters teem with marine life, such as orcas and southern right whales, as well as whale sharks. This gentle giant, with its distinctive white markings, is a voracious filter feeder that feasts on krill. Playful, intelligent dolphins venture into inlets and coastal bays; snubfin, Burranan bottlenose and Australian humpbacks are endemic. In tropical waters, colourful reef fish abound; meanwhile duck-billed platypuses, elegant in the water but awkward on land, prefer freshwater creeks and lakes. 

Where to spot them

Travel to Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef between March and August to swim with whale sharks. The state is also a good bet for whale watching; humpbacks, southern rights and orcas are the focus of boat trips out of Bremer Bay, Augusta and Fremantle. Port Stephens in New South Wales bills itself as Australia’s dolphin capital. A pod of 120 bottlenose dolphins chases boats here year-round. Across the state, ripples in Blue Lake at Jenolan Caves indicate platypuses are present, particularly early or late in the day. Further north, snorkel in the company of clownfish in the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays; they love Queensland’s warm shallows.

Top Audley tip

"The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is during the winter dry season, from May to October. Visibility is better, manta rays are present and you’ll dodge stinger season."

Aussie aviators

The species

About 850 bird species live in Australia and unlike the commonly-sighted pelican, a little under half aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Among the most distinctive is the cassowary, Australia’s heaviest bird, with its statement blue head and neck, red wattle and inky-black plumage. Thanks to their spectacular tail feathers, ground-dwelling lyrebirds look a little like a brown pheasant. Orange-bellied parrots are mostly yellowy green, with a trademark splash of colour to warrant the name.

Where to spot them

Head to the Daintree Rainforest if you hope to find a cassowary, a flightless bird native to north eastern Australia. Consider yourself lucky if you succeed: they’re elusive loners, though if you hear a rumble or grunt one may be nearby. Listen out for the call of lyrebirds in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales or the Yarra Valley, the Dandenong Ranges and South Gippsland over the state line in Victoria. Orange-bellied parrots breed in the forests of western Tasmania but spend the winter over on the mainland. Meanwhile pelicans frequent most coastal towns especially if there’s fish around.

Top Audley tip

"Increase your chance of spotting a cassowary by searching for its favourite food, the blue-hued cassowary plum. If you notice fresh seed-riddled droppings nearby, chances are the bird’s here too."

Wildlife of the isles