Today for our second big trip of O-Week, about 100 students went to Billabong Sanctuary. It is just outside of Townsville and is home to many unique and iconic Australian animals.
We arrived mid-morning and first went to see the crocodiles. The crocodile that we spent our time with was over 15 feet long and is estimated to weigh over 1,000 pounds! We learned a lot about crocodile safety, which is very important to know in Australia. While we were told to not fear getting eaten by a crocodile in the local super market car park (parking lot), we were warned to stay away from the edges of water and to only swim in designated areas. As we were learning about staying safely away from crocodiles, we got to see this croc’s pearly-whites as he was fed a snack.
Then, continuing with the crocodile theme, at our next learning station we got to take some photos with crocodiles! Believe it or not, the crocodile that I am holding is not a baby like it appears to be. It is actually four years old and is the same type of crocodile as above. The growth rate of a crocodile largely depends on the amount that it eats and environmental temperature. The more it eats and the warmer it is, the faster the croc will grow. I asked how Billabong manages crocodile growth, because they can largely determine the growth rate of the crocs since they are the ones who feed them. I was told that Billabong checks fat deposites on the crocodiles and feeds more when they are light and less when they are thick, which makes sense.
Next, we learned about snakes. We met Scoota, a carpet python. Lisa, her handler, told us that carpet pythons are non-venomous and that Scoota has been raised at by humans and is very accustom to being handled. Now, when I was little, I used to run around the yard at day-care and catch little garter snakes. But, after those days had passed, I became less fond of snakes in general. But, today I took a deep breath and let Lisa wrap Scoota around my shoulders. And- you know what- it wasn’t as bad as I expected.
Next, it was the time to visit the animal that many people want to visit most while in Australia- the koalas! Here we met Wonda the Koala and got to pet her back and snap a photo with her. (Later some people chose to pay to hold akoala and have a professional photo taken, but I was not one of those people. I get more excited about colorful fish and preferred to save my money to put towards a dive trip.)
We learned that koalas spend 18-20 hours a day sleeping. They have a hard cartilage plate in their rump that is basically a built in seat. It makes sitting in trees all day with little movement more bearable. Koalas eat eucaliptus leaves, which are actually poisonous. In order to digest these leaves, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms in their gut to help digest their food. However, koalas are not born with these microorganisms. After birth, mother koalas produce a special type of poop, called pap, that their baby koalas eat. This special poop is the key to the baby koala’s survival because it is basically a microorganism starter pack that prepares the young koala’s stomach for eating eucalypt. Talk about a tasty first meal….
In native aboriginal, Koalas are called “oonoobara” which means “no drink.” This name is very fitting because, in addition to getting all of the nutrients that they need, koalas also get all of their moisture from eucaliptus leaves. Koalas only leave their trees to drink in extreme cases, such as sever drought or bush fires.
I was also glad to learn that they are very strict regulations about handling koalas. It is not legal to hold wild koalas, and in sanctuaries, koalas can only be handled for half an hour per day up to three days per week. The rest of the time, the koalas must be left to do what they do best- eat, sleep, and repeat!
After meeting the koalas, we got to go pet a sleepy northern bare-nosed wombat. She was much larger than I expected. I learned a lot about wombats, including the fact that once a police man used his radar gun to record the speed of a wombat running along at 42 kilometers per hour (26 miles) which is as fast as Usain Bolt, that fastest person on the planet, can run! Wombats are solitary animals, much like koalas, and dig burrows under ground to stay cool. After this, we had free time to walk around the sanctuary and see all of the other animals. I also got to see dingos, which look like domestic dogs, but certainty don’t act domestic, especially in the wild, where they love to chase wombats.
It was really cool to get to see a pair of cassowaries, too! These birds are the third largest flightless bird in the world and are quite striking in their appearance. They have jet black feathers on the majority of their body, which is contrasted by bright blue feathers around their neck and head. Atop their head is a large, hard formation called a casque. Scientists have only hypothesized about what its function may be. While cassowaries may not be able to fly, they have very powerful legs with long, razor sharp claws.
Despite their intimidating looks, however, cassowaries are good care takers. It is the father’s responsibility to incubate the egg for over 50 days and raise the chick for 18 months after it hatches. Sadly, cassowaries are in grave danger. According to what I learned at the sanctuary, it is estimated that less than 1,000 southern cassowaries remain in the wild. Their main threats are getting hit by cars, attacked by dogs, and, like all too many species, loss of habitat. For many species, habitat loss leads to habitat fragmentation which isolates smaller populations of species which are more susceptible to dying out.
I also learned that eclectus parrots, shown below, display incredible sexual dimorphism, which means that each of the two sexes has a very different appearance. The females are mostly red with black beaks and a purple chest; while the males are mostly green with orange beaks. They are also very intelligent and can learn quite a large vocabulary, but unfortunately I didn’t have any conversations with either of them today. While walking around I was also lucky enough to see a mother kangaroo on the edge of the path! This kangaroo is not part of an exhibit at Billabong, but is rather a clever kangaroo that knows where to get a snack throughout the day. While crouching down on the edge of the path, the kangaroo approached Isa and I. We were both holding out a bit of feed in our hands and were excited to see the head of a baby joey pop out of the pouch as the kangaroo got closer! When she nibbled out of my hand, it felt a lot like a goat or sheep eating a handful of grain. But this was way more insane because it was an Australian kangaroo!! I had a great time at Billabong Sanctuary today. It was an awesome way to learn about many of Australia’s iconic animals. I am looking forward to keeping an eye out for all of these critters while I am exploring Australia over the next few months. I am thankful for facilities such as Billabong that focus on educating the public about safety for themselves as well as protecting rare and endangered species. Unfortunately, not all of these animals can survive in the wild for various reasons. I am glad to know that they have a good home at Billabong to spend their time while educating humans one at a time.