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Australia and Tasmania, Remarkable Animals

 

Australia and Tasmania possess many specimens of strange animal life; even in the latter, or Van Diemen's Land, are found several species which exist only on that small bit of the earth's surface. Tasmania, which is separated from the southern extremity of Australia by a strait about one hundred and forty miles in width, was first discovered in 1633, by Abel Tasman, a famous Dutch navigator, who supposed it to be a portion of Australia, then known as New Holland. The celebrated Captain Cook visited it one hundred and fifty years later; but it was not until about 1800, when Captain Flinders, exploring the southern coast of Australia, discovered the strait, that Tasmania was known to be an island. As Mr. Bass, surgeon of a British ship which had cruised in those waters, had already affirmed that such a strait existed, Captain Flinders named it Bass Strait in his honor.

At the beginning of this century a few tribes of natives were the sole human inhabitants of Tasmania, but about 1803 a party of English military, with a gang of convicts under their charge, came from New South Wales and formed a settlement, which is now a flourishing English town called Hobart Town. Sheep-raising is now the principal industry of this island, and large exports of wool are made yearly.

The scenery of Tasmania is very picturesque. Grand basaltic headlands tower along the coast, while inland are lofty mountains, broad lakes, untrodden jungles, and wide-spreading plains covered with rich and luxuriant vegetation.

Australia and Tasmania are the residence of the curious family of animals with pouches, called Marsupialia, from marsupium, signifying a purse or bag. One variety of this species, the opossum, is found in the United States, and a few live in South America and Mexico, but in the Australian regions are more than seventy different kinds of these singular creatures. The leader of them all is the great kangaroo, which stands about five feet high when resting upon its hind-feet and haunches. When running it springs from the ground in an erect position, holding its short fore-arms tight to its chest, like a professional runner, and it will go as far as sixteen feet at one jump. From twenty to thirty species of kangaroos are found in Australia and the surrounding islands.

A member of the Marsupialia family which does not exist out of the small island of Tasmania is the zebra-wolf, the most savage and destructive of all the marsupials. This ferocious beast is about the size of the largest kind of sheep-dog. Its short fur is of a yellowish-brown color, and its back and sides are handsomely marked with black stripes. It is a fleet runner, propelling itself with its hind-legs, which are jointed like those of a kangaroo, although it goes on all fours. Its gait is a succession of quick springs—a peculiarity of nearly all the animals of Tasmania.

EMU AND ZEBRA WOLVES. EMU AND ZEBRA WOLVES.

The zebra-wolf is very troublesome to the sheep-raising farmers, and constant watch is required to prevent its depredations on the flocks and herds. It inhabits caverns and rocks in the deep and almost impenetrable glens in the neighborhood of the high mountain ranges, from whence it sallies forth at night to scour the great grassy plains in search of food. It preys on the brush kangaroo, the great emu, and any small birds or beasts it can capture.

Another strange beast is the porcupine ant-eater, or Tasmanian hedgehog. It is much larger than the English hedgehog, and can not roll itself into a ball. Its back is covered with very stout spines protruding from a coat of thick gray fur, and in place of a mouth it has a round bill about two inches long. One of these strange creatures was once presented to an English lady living at Hobart Town. For safety she placed it at the bottom of a deep wooden churn until better lodgings could be provided. Shortly after, on going to look at her captive, she found it clinging by its long claws to the top of the churn, with its funny little head peeping over. The bill gave an indescribably droll expression to its queer pursed-up face, while its bright eyes peered restlessly about from their furry nooks. There was something so pitiful, pleading, and helpless in the expression of the little creature, that the lady, fearing she could not make it happy in captivity, at once set it free in her garden. It immediately began to burrow, casting up a circular ridge of earth, beneath which in a moment it vanished, and never was seen again.

The duck-bill is a near kinsman of the porcupine ant-eater. It is a mole-like quadruped, with a large bill like a duck's. It spends most of its time in the water, but lives in a burrow on the shore. Its feet are very curious, as they can be changed at the pleasure of their owner. When in the water they are webbed like a duck's, but if the creature comes on shore, the web shrinks, and leaves long sharp claws ready for burrowing.

There is also a small, clumsy, inoffensive animal called the wombat, which is never found outside of these Australian regions. Its head resembles that of a badger. It has very small eyes, short legs, and its fat, squab body is covered with coarse gray hair. It lives in rocky places and mountain gullies, and feeds on the roots of plants. It is easily tamed, and makes a very affectionate pet. Some English children living in Tasmania once had a pet wombat. It became so mischievous, however, that they determined to carry it back to its native forest. But the wombat having tasted the comforts of civilized life, had no desire to dig for its living again. Three times it was carried away, the last time to a wood beyond a deep river; but every time, when night came, a well-known scratching was heard at the door, and the wombat presented itself, drenched and weary, but determined not to suffer banishment from its comfortable home. Its master, touched by so much attachment, at length allowed it to remain, and it passed the rest of its days in peace.

The kangaroo-rat and kangaroo-mouse, the opossum-mouse, the flying opossum, and some other odd little creatures, inhabit Tasmania. They are all marsupials, having a pouch for their little ones, and jumping on their hind-feet like a kangaroo.

An enormous bird is found in the Australian countries, called the emu. In its habits and general appearance it resembles the ostrich, although it does not possess the exquisite plumage of that bird. The long drooping feathers of the emu are brownish-black in color, and covered with hairy fibres. A full-grown bird is five or six feet in height. It never flies, but, like the ostrich, is a very swift runner, and as it is very shy, is difficult to capture. Its nest is a hole scraped in the ground, where it lays six or seven dark green eggs. Emus are much hunted by the Bushmen, as a fine clear oil is prepared from the skin, which is highly prized for its medicinal qualities.

Many varieties of remarkable and beautiful birds are found in Australia and Tasmania: the lyre-bird, with its wonderful tail feathers; the odd owl-like "morepoke," which screams its own name through the forest solitudes all night long; glistening bronze-winged pigeons; strange and gorgeous parrots; and others, to describe which would fill a large volume. In this locality are nearly a hundred species of birds and beasts not found in any other portion of the world, and they are all, with scarcely a single exception, the oddest and strangest of existing creatures.