The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 671/Biological notes on North-Australian Mammalia

Biological notes on North-Australian Mammalia (1897)
by Knut Dahl
4045172Biological notes on North-Australian Mammalia1897Knut Dahl


No. 671.— May, 1897.


By Knut Dahl,

Of the Zootomic Instit. University of Christiania.

Engaged on a collecting expedition, on behalf of the University Museum of Christiania, to Africa and Australia (from 1893–96), I spent nearly two years travelling in the northern and north-western portions of the latter continent, investigating the little-known fauna of this region. Special interest was devoted to the mammals, and, besides amassing a good collection, my work in this branch was rewarded by the discovery of several species of interest, some of which are new to science. A descriptive list of the mammals, by Professor R. Collett, will shortly be published in the 'Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.'[1]

The following short notes descriptive of the life and habits of these little-known animals may, I venture to hope, prove of some value to readers who take an interest in the zoology of tropical Australia.

The hardships of travel have undoubtedly put their limitation on my investigations, and no one is more aware than myself how superficial they are, or how little insight they give the reader to the real animal life in the virgin forests of the north. Nevertheless I feel it my duty to commit them to paper, hoping that in course of time I may be able to place a further and more detailed account of my travels before the public.

Pteropus gouldii.

This large "Flying Fox" is very plentiful throughout the north, and especially in the neighbourhood of great rivers, where it literally swarms.

It is in the mangroves on the long tidal creeks—so numerous in Northern Australia—or in the bamboo jungles along the great water-courses that the animals spend the day, assembled in flocks numbering several thousands. Hanging on the branches of the trees by their hind legs, and also clinging to each other in the same way, they almost entirely cover the trees in their camping grounds.

Such a "Flying Fox camp" is never perfectly quiet, and even in the middle of the day numbers are flitting about in and around the trees uttering their hoarse shrieks, and the cause of this restlessness may be found in the fact that one individual is not able to settle down in this enormous mass of animals without disturbing others. The buzzing noise issuing from one of these camps when heard at a distance might be compared to that of a gigantic beehive, and the clamour of the colony when disturbed is deafening. Thousands of these animals stack themselves one on top of the other in such masses that the thick limbs of large trees are split and broken by their weight, and when approached by man or any other enemy the individuals in the centre of these hordes of living creatures are prevented from quickly getting away by those hanging outside.

The native hunter of the woods takes advantage of this latter fact, and, on discovering a "Flying Fox camp," runs quickly up, and, bashing away at the struggling bats with a stick or bamboo-rod, easily secures large quantities of this highly esteemed game amongst the aborigines.

Although by no means numerous, at least one of these camps may be found on any large river, and its numbers comprise nearly all the individuals of a considerable district. At sundown the bats commence travelling, sometimes great distances, to reach a patch of the forest where the Eucalypti are in blossom, the flowers of these trees forming their principal food. A constant string of animals is then for hours issuing from the camp, and the observer who posts himself on their roving route may to a certain extent form an idea of their numbers.

I was once sitting on the bank of the Victoria river at sundown not far from a large camping ground. The bats came flying past me along the river, and, watch in hand, I commenced counting them as well as I could. After some time I arrived at the result that, superficially speaking, more than three hundred bats were passing every minute. Faster I could not count, and for more than two hours the living current continued pouring past me. According to this the camp must have numbered at least 32,000 individuals, a figure which may by no means be considered too high.

The P. gouldii is not very shy, and falls an easy victim to the gun of the traveller. Its fat flesh is not bad eating, and the natives consider it a great delicacy, the strong smell of eucalyptus peculiar to these animals evidently forming one of its greatest attractions.. Having killed a bat the aborigines will with utter satisfaction smell and even bite the fur of the dead body.

On the Victoria river I observed them breeding in March and April. The two young constantly adhere to their mother's breasts, which, as in most other Chiroptera, are situate in the arm-pits, and they cling to the thick fur of the mother, both when she is on the wing and resting. In this latter position the folded wings of the animal form a secure shelter for the helpless young.

Being of a pugnacious temper and very irritable, a wounded Flying Fox will pluckily attack the legs of the hunter; and, disturbed in their feeding grounds or in the camp, the bats exude their stinking excrements on the intruder.

Pteropus scapulatus.

This by no means common species was observed on the Daly river occasionally accompanying the mobs of P. gouldii on their feeding grounds. As to whether the two species make use of the same camping grounds, I cannot express a definite opinion. I can only state that on examining a number of Flying Foxes shot at night when feeding a few P. scapulatus would generally be found. The rest were P. gouldii.

Hipposiderus muscinus.

This rare little species is new to the fauna of the Australian continent, and has hitherto been recorded only from New Guinea. In Arnhem Land I found it frequenting the locality where the "Wogoit" was first discovered, in the peculiar granitic formation on the western heads of the Mary river.

Crawling through the immense stone heaps characteristic of the region, one could observe these little bats suspended by the hind legs from the rocky roofs of the different chambers. Hanging in this position, their delicate bodies were constantly shaking with a light quivering motion. At a short distance from the observer they would hang perfectly quiet, but the moment I approached them with my hand they would utter a squeak like that of a mouse and flutter away to the next chamber. They seemed to feel the least disturbance of the air surrounding them. None of the specimens killed in the month of May had any young ones attached to the breasts.

At sunset they will commence hunting for insects in the forest around the hills, and are then, as a rule, seen nearly level with the tree-tops. They were numerous, and although the above-mentioned granitic formation was the only locality where I secured specimens, I feel confident of their occurrence in the caves of the central table-land.

Taphozous australis.

This insectivorous bat, with its great clumsy head, is considerably larger than the H. muscinus, and, contrary to the custom of the latter, it is always hanging by the fore-limbs when at rest. The granitic formation on the western heads of the river Mary was the only place where it was observed during my travels in Arnhem Land, and here it inhabited the same rocky crevices and caves as H. muscinus.

As a rule, it chooses slanting rocks for resting, and besides clinging to the rock by the fore limbs, as above mentioned, it also supports the body by the posterior extremities. Upon the sight of man these bats rock forward and backward with an utterly comical motion, then for a moment they sit perfectly quiet, with glistening teeth, and finally with a squeak dart at the intruder. They are only moderately nocturnal in habit. When disturbed they will very often leave the caves, and even in the middle of the day flutter about high in the air, perch in the tall trees, and after some time return to shelter amongst the rocks.

Nyctophilia timoriensis.

Of all insectivorous bats this species appeared to be the one most common in Arnhem Land. On Daly river the greatest numbers were observed, especially round the houses of the lonely Jesuits' mission station "Uniya," where they literally swarmed. Just at sunset they commenced flying, and during their flight they never arose to any considerable height, mostly keeping so close to the ground that a short stick would serve as a means for knocking them down. Their flight is feeble and fluttering, with sudden darts upward when catching an insect. Now and then a little squeak is uttered very similar to that of a mouse.

A few specimens occurred around Roebuck Bay. Although the coast of Dampier Land, especially in the rainy season, seemed exceedingly rich in insects, the insectivorous bats, on the whole, were remarkably few in number.

Scotophilus greyii, Chalinolobus nigrogriseus, Vesperugo tenuis.

All these little bats were procured in the immediate neighbourhood of Roebuck Bay, and none of the species were numerous. As I have mentioned before, the insectivorous bats were here remarkably few in number. Only now and then a bat would be seen against the golden evening sky, never arising to any considerable height, and during my stay only one or two specimens of each species were obtained. Only once in Arnhem Land did I see a bat which I believe was the Chalinolobus, but I failed in securing it.

Canis dingo. "Mujinn"; "Damarr."

The dismal howl of the Dingo is one of the characteristic features of a night in tropical Australia. In Arnhem Land, on Victoria River, and around Roebuck Bay, the Wild Dog was common, but mostly occurred singly or in pairs, the large packs described in the tales of bushmen as haunting Central Australia having never been observed by the author.

The hot day is usually spent sleeping in the shade of an anthill or in a patch of long grass, and sundown is the signal for the dogs to commence hunting. It is a common belief that the Dingoes literally hunt their prey down in packs, but no such proceeding ever came to my notice. The food of the Dingo in the vast forests and deserts of the north consists, as a rule, of smaller vertebrates, chiefly various species of lizards, Coniluridæ and Muridæ, a fact which is strongly indicated by the almost constant presence of their bones in the excrements of the animal. I do not deny that a young Macropod or Emu occasionally forms its diet, perhaps with an additional egg or young bird; but the Dingo chiefly depends on smaller animals for its existence. Its habits are sneaking and cowardly, and I hardly consider it capable of attacking a kangaroo its own size. It will kill goats or sheep, but I am inclined to believe that its tactics are more like the cunning stealthiness of the fox than the ferocious dash of the wolf.

The colonists of the southern parts of the continent are seriously troubled by the depredations of the Dingo on their sheep-farms, and the question has been very much disputed whether these Dingoes belong to the aboriginal species of the continent, or, as commonly believed, are the offspring of various crossings between Dingoes and European dogs. The latter supposition is rendered probable by the fact that Dingoes propagate with European dogs of different breeds, that is, the half-bred Dingoes of the aborigines will breed with the mongrel European dogs also kept by their masters. The question is, will these bastards on their occasional visits in the bush breed with the wild Dingoes? It is possible; but even supposing it to be so, I feel inclined to consider it to be the only way in which this interbreeding takes place, and consequently that its effects are very small, far smaller than generally supposed, and so small as in course of time to be almost obliterated. I am led to believe this because the Dingo type is always dominant, and because European dogs never would breed with wild Dingoes. They heartily detest them, may with advantage be employed in their chase, and only by force of circumstances breed with the half-tame individuals in the camps of the aborigines. In the north and north-west, European dogs had been in the country ten and thirty years respectively, and yet in the bush not a single specimen of Dingo was observed or shot which did not have all the specific characters of the species. These characters are very constant, and I have never seen two Dingoes differing more in form and colour than perhaps two foxes, a circumstance which to my mind indicates that the Dingo is not a breed of domestic dog gone wild—a very common belief—but undoubtedly a distinct canine species peculiar to Australia, a fact which is moreover amply proved by the occurrence of fossil Dingoes in the pleistocene formations of Australia.

The Dingo, as a rule, is shy and very cunning, and a European is seldom able to kill the animal in its lair. The stealthy aborigine, on the contrary, very often succeeds in killing it with a spear when asleep. The flesh is not much esteemed, though some old men eat it.

The traveller will, as a rule, only be able to shoot the dog with a rifle. Occasionally it will, at a respectful distance, follow a man on horseback, apparently from curiosity.

In the month of August some recently-caught pups, hardly a month old, were brought to me by the natives. They were very playful, and soon got used to my company, but were great thieves, and would on the least opportunity break their confinement, and escape to the aborigines or to the bush.

Conilurus hirsutus. "Nunjala"; "Dombot"; "Kalambo."

During my sojourn in Arnhem Land I first met with this species on an expedition to "Hermit Hill," south of the Daly river. The hollow trunks of the dwarf Eucalypti, which chiefly form the open scrubs of these desert-like sandy plains, were the chief resorts of this animal, whose habits are strictly nocturnal.

Judging from my list of specimens from this locality, the females outnumber the males by far, amongst eleven specimens only two being males. On several other localities the species was met with—in fact it is common nearly everywhere in Arnhem Land; but my series of specimens from these places are too small to admit of any conclusive comparison as to the proportionate numbers of the sexes. Nowhere, at all events, the number of males exceeded that of females, and in the total comparison the scale turns strongly to the female side. From this it may be inferred that the species is polygamous, a theory which I consider strengthened by the fact that the males were always found separately.

The number of young was invariably found to be two. They are suckled by the mother until they reach a considerable size, and will with great tenacity adhere to her teats when pulled out of the hollow trunk where she is hiding.

At night the animal roams about searching for food, which chiefly consists of the fruits of the Corkscrew Palm, Pandanus odoratissimus. Its movements are sudden and jerky, and the animal is a fast and clever runner, as well as a splendid climber. Being smart and well built, and in possession of a very irritable and savage temper, the bite from its strong jaws is by no means insignificant, and a nasty gash in the hand may easily be the result of a clumsy attack on the Nunjala.

Owing to its size and savoury flesh the natives pursue it, and the animal is caught by simply chopping a hole in the hollow tree where it sleeps, and pulling it out by the tail. When colonisation reaches the forest, the Nunjala, like other species of the genus, becomes a domestic parasite, and also a very noxious one.

It is said that the European Muridæ in the southern parts of the continent are gradually extirpating and replacing the aboriginal representatives of the Coniluridæ, and I shall not contradict the statement. I only feel confident that even Mus decumanus would find the "Nunjala" a worthy antagonist.

Conilurus penicillatus. "Pelke."

This little species occurred most plentifully in the neighbourhood of "Hermit Hill," and the natives brought me great numbers of it. According to them the animal invariably sleeps in the corners of the stiff leaves of the common Corkscrew Palm, Pandanus odoratissimus.

The animal may be seen at night flitting about in the trees, and in Arnhem Land is everywhere common in the vicinity of water. It is extremely savage, and bites viciously. Whenever I kept a number of them together in captivity they would always fight, and very often kill each other. Their gnawing power is very great, and they would in very short time bite their way out of any basket or cage I might put them in.

Wherever a house is built in the forest and people settle, this species, like most other Coniluridæ, abandons its original habits, settles in and around the house, and becomes a domestic parasite.

Conilurus boweri. "Katkomba."

This beautiful species I only had the opportunity of observing in the vicinity of Roebuck Bay, Western Australia. It does not occur in Arnhem Land. According to the evidence of the natives, like the C. hirsutus, it frequents the hollow trees of the Eucalyptus scrubs. I have never seen it myself, except in the houses of settlers. These corrugated iron buildings, with their rafters and framework of Eucalyptus wood, are always tenanted by the "Katkomba," the flour- and rice-bags of the store-rooms being the object of their visit.

On the Hill-station, quite close to Roebuck Bay, a couple of these parasites had their stronghold under the roof of the dilapidated house. Every evening after dark they would commence moving about, and by the flickering light of our lamps I could see the beautiful white-tailed animals rapidly crawl along the rafters overhead, and vanish into the store-room. My attempts to induce them to enter a trap invariably failed. Only by the aid of the natives was I able to secure one nearly adult specimen and two young ones. These latter were brought to me in the month of December, but probably the breeding takes place during the whole year. The number of young ones being two, I venture to propose that this may be regarded as the constant birth-rate of the genus. It will be remembered that the same number is always found with C. hirsutus.

Hydromys chrysogaster fulvolavatus. "Djinnjokma."

Although this species abounds in nearly all the northern lagoons, rivers, and creeks, the traveller will hardly ever see it, and even the aborigine can only with difficulty procure it.

Everywhere along the water's edge these animals dig numerous channels into the bank, like the European Water-vole, and in the water they seek their food, which chiefly consists of fish and crustaceans. The bleached shells of the latter are generally to be seen along the shore where the animal has devoured its prey.

The mode of life of this animal I had very little opportunity of observing, but I think it may be considered as chiefly nocturnal in its habits. Sometimes it will, according to the natives, come out in the daytime, but hardly without being noticed. The aboriginal hunter puts a dead fish in the water outside the hole of the "Djinnjokma," and waits with a light spear all day for the animal to come out and feed; but very often he waits in vain, at least, that is my experience.

Only once on the Daly, in the month of August, an aborigine brought me a living adult female specimen with three young ones, and a few juvenile specimens were received later. The Hydromys is strong, of a very savage temper, bites hard, and when irritated gives vent to a grunting squeak.


The common Black Rat, Mus rattus, was observed in Arnhem Land, and frequently found in the dwellings of colonists. Except in these houses and their immediate surroundings, I did not observe it; but I am unwilling to lay any stress on the circumstance that no specimens of this species came to my notice during my travels in the forests. It may easily have escaped my attention, and the animal may, but certainly not to any great extent, inhabit the woods of the north. The species is undoubtedly introduced either by European ships or Malay trepang-fishers, the latter for centuries having every year visited the northern coasts of Australia.

Arnhem Land was inhabited not only by Mus rattus, but by a number of small species of the genus Mus, the specific determination of which has proved impossible, chiefly owing to the small series of specimens collected. These forms are undoubtedly indigenous to the country, and belong to the original fauna of Australia. They are so numerous and so widely distributed, even to the remotest parts of Arnhem Land, that they can scarcely be considered as introduced. In places where the white man had seldom, if ever before, trod, they seemed to occur in the greatest numbers.

These mice and rats, the size of which generally averages about that of the common Cricetus frumentarius of Europe, play a quite important part in the economy of nature. In order that the soil, even in its pristine condition, shall retain its power of nourishing vegetable life, a constant turning and renewal is necessary. Subsoil must in one way or another be conveyed to the surface, and replace that which has become deficient in nourishing qualities. It is a well-known fact that the termites to a great extent accomplish this work in tropical regions, and in Arnhem Land numerous ant-hills, sometimes of an enormous size, may be everywhere observed; but at the same time I cannot doubt that these small rodents perform a not unimportant part in this task of renewing the soil. The fact is that these rats are living in burrows deeply dug in the sandy ground, the earth being thrown out of the mouth of such retreats and spread outside in great heaps. However, they do not content themselves with this. Every night they continue burrowing, and the ground is perforated in all directions. In Arnhem Land I have travelled through square miles of country where the ground was literally undermined by these rodents to such an extent that the hoofs of my horses at nearly every step would break through and sink deep down in the burrows. The importance of this fact in the economy of nature can easily be understood. Every square mile of land in these localities is covered with heaps of sandy earth, sometimes dug out from a very considerable depth, and when the rainy season sets in and the ground is soaked the burrows collapse, the heaps are levelled, washed out over their surroundings, and the natural ploughing of the year is completed, while the little animals are compelled to recommence their task, and pay their house-rent by throwing earth up to the surface. Not only these Muridæ, but nearly every burrowing animal or reptile of this region decidedly perform a certain part—a small share—in the agricultural process of nature.

Echidna aculeata. "Melk"; "Guarang."

The Monotremes are in the north represented by a single form, the Echidna or "Porcupine" of the colonist. This species is found nearly all over the continent, and in Arnhem Land seemed to prefer the mountainous regions, especially the wildly broken granite and sandstone formations. In these localities it does not, as a rule, make use of its burrowing properties, but simply rests in some crevice or under the immense boulders, the setting and rising sun respectively being the signal for commencing to feed or retiring to rest.

When thought to be unobserved this clumsy-looking animal will exhibit surprising agility, and sometimes run with considerable swiftness. At the least danger it will immediately roll itself up in a protective spiky ball. Its usual food consists of termites, but the Echidna can for a considerable space of time endure hunger without succumbing. Once I kept a specimen tied up in a bag for more than a fortnight, lacking time to skin it, and during that period it did not obtain the least nutriment; but at the end of the confinement it seemed to be perfectly well, and dissection proved it to be in a fat condition.

The breeding was said by the natives to take place at the commencement of the rainy season, and in a female specimen examined in the drought of the year (May, 1895) there was no sign of the abdominal milk-glands commencing to swell. The ovaries contained eggs, some of which were developed to almost the size of a pea. The natives strongly denied and even ridiculed the idea of an Echidna laying an egg and transferring it to the temporary pouch for hatching.

The Echidna being dependent on termites for food, and especially well adapted for burrowing, I was surprised at not finding the animal in the low plains, where the termites were very abundant and the soil by no means harder than in the mountainous regions. But it strikes me that there is a circumstance which may have forced the Echidna from the plains and restricted it to the broken regions. There is no doubt that an animal burrowing in the soil is more exposed to persecution by the aborigines—the only enemy of the Echidna—than one hiding beneath the colossal boulders in the granite and sandstone formations; and I have no hesitation in expressing my opinion that the occurrence of the Echidna only in the rocky regions of Arnhem Land is in all probability due to the steady persecution of the natives.

In other portions of Australia, where the natives are less numerous, the Echidna, I am informed, may be found not only in the smooth undulating hills, but also in sandy plains. In the north it was, as far as my experience goes, exclusively confined to the broken ranges, large numbers being only found in the most wild and broken formations; and this circumstance, I consider, must be regarded as a very striking example of how the natural dispositions of an animal may be influenced and even altered or modified by human interference.

Perameles obesula.

This little bandicoot was very numerous in the coast country around Roebuck Bay, Western Australia. A small grass nest, quite simply built on the ground or in a hollow, forms their place of resort, which, when in danger, they readily quit to hide under another similar cover in the neighbourhood.

Great numbers being brought to me by the natives, I used to keep them in captivity, in order to investigate some of their habits. The adults did not, as a rule, seem to thrive in captivity, nor to attain confidence in the handling of man. The young ones, on the contrary, became perfect pets, and seemed to delight in crawling up one's hand and arm, or to sleep in one's pockets.

Besides being little shy of man, they exhibited great playfulness, and I well remember the amusing ways of a young animal which I placed in the cage with some adults. The moment it was liberated it ran over to one of the others, and, like a kitten, commenced to pat with its fore paws the snout of the old one, licked it, pushed it, and threw itself down on its back. In this position it lay twisting itself and kicking the snout of the old animal in mere playfulness, like a kitten playing with its mother. They lick their fur in the same way as a cat. They walk on the same principle as the Macropodidæ, separately moving the fore and hind feet, but their short feeble tail does not, of course, afford them any support.

Sleeping throughout the day, they lie on the side rolled up like a cat, but towards sundown commence moving. Sometimes drowsiness seems to overpower them again, and then they sit with the hind part of the body shut up, the hind legs well tucked in under the body, the chest touching the ground, and the head resting on the fore legs, which are stretched straight forward. The animals in the evening would greedily drink water, which they daintily licked, and rice or crumbs of wheat-bread seemed to give them sufficient nutriment. The species appears to require a great deal of water, and their tracks are always seen by the cattle-wells near Roebuck Bay, the only places where water may be obtained in these deserts. In places where water is absolutely absent, the dew seems sufficient for their wants. A few drops of dew gathered on the leaves of various plants would quench their thirst, and some of their food undoubtedly contains a certain quantity of moisture.

As regards the breeding of this species, a fact of considerable interest was noticed. In the pouch of the female (which, by the way, has the opening turned towards the anus) as a rule three young are found in the earliest stage of development after birth. When the half-grown post-foetal stage is reached only two remain; and when development is nearly completed, and the young animal almost fit to leave the pouch, only one is left. This most uncommon phenomenon amongst mammals is very constant in this species, and may admit of the conclusion that the young of Perameles obesula, during their post-foetal stages in the pouch, have greater difficulties to contend with, and are subject to more dangers, than those of most other marsupials.

Perameles macrura. "Koppol."

In Arnhem Land this Bandicoot abounded, especially in the neighbourhood of large rivers and creeks. A burrow in the soil lined with soft grass, a little grass nest on the ground or in a hollow log, usually constituted the dwelling of this large Perameles, whose savoury flesh forms a considerable part of the animal food so relished by the aborigines; indeed, the "Koppol" is nearly the best game of Australia, and well roasted it does not much differ from a small sucking-pig. The only circumstance which may restrain the hungry traveller from enjoying a "Bandicoot" steak, is, that the animal very often is infested with a large tapeworm. Whether this tapeworm, which reaches an enormous length and very likely at full development causes the death of the animal, is transmissible to man or not, I am unable to express any opinion. The natives never seemed to suffer from a similar complaint.

At sundown the animal will come out, feeding all the night on seeds, herbs, and insects. With rice as a bait it is easily trapped, and occasionally it will visit the pack-bags of the traveller when encamped for the night. It drinks frequently.

More than one young was never found in the pouch of the female.

The animals are very agile, run fast, and when pursued quickly turn with great dexterity and presence of mind.

Pseudochirus dahlii. "Wogoit."

Before entering the big central tableland of Arnhem Land, the traveller will in the neighbourhood of the western sources of the river Mary find a very peculiar granitic formation.

From the plain country, the soil of which chiefly consists of a coarse granitic sand, there inwardly rises the huge Eucalyptus forest, hill by hill, with wild torn forms, and on the very hills grows plentifully the cypress of North Australia, Callitris robusta (vulg. cypress-pine).

These hills, which are only parted by small valleys, never show any primitive rock, but rise from the granite like colossal heaps of stones and débris. Granitic boulders in all sizes and forms are heaped up on each other to a height of more than a hundred feet, and through crevasses and passages one may, crawling or walking, penetrate the whole of the dark interior of the mountain. In these surroundings I found, in May, 1895, besides the usual cave-dwellers of the north, Dasyurus halocatus, Petrogale brachyotis, and the rare P. concinna, a Pseudochirus new to science.

The natives called it "Wogoit," and in the 'Zool. Anzeiger,' No. 490, 1895, and in the 'Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London,[2] Prof. R. Collett, of Christiania, has described it under the name of Pseudochirus dahlii, "the Rock Phalanger."

Subsequent expeditions showed me that the species also occurred numerously in the great central tableland; but outside these localities I never discovered the slightest trace of the animal.

The Wogoit is a strictly nocturnal animal, which spends the day sleeping in the caves and crevasses of the granitic heaps, choosing the darkest recesses as a resting-place. After sundown it crawls out from cover, seeking food in the blossoming gum trees, such as Eucalyptus miniata and tetrodonta. It also commonly frequents a species of Terminalia, which carries a fleshy, and even to the human palate, savoury stone-fruit. At the break of day the Wogoit again takes refuge in the dark depths of the caves.

Generally the animals are found in pairs, male and female, sometimes accompanied by a half-grown young one. When at rest the animals very often lie squeezed flat in some crevice, without regard as to its being horizontal, vertical, or slanting, or coil themselves up in some dark corner. In this latter position they sit rolled up nearly in a ball, the hind legs frequently crossed, like those of a tailor. The right hind leg is, as a rule, stretched out, the left thrown across it, which both fore paws grasp. The tail is curved forward and upward, past the left ear, and the head bends deeply over the fore paws.

Their walk, during which the tail is kept straight out, is firm and sure, and very much approaches the so-termed "amble." They are clever climbers; their run is a kind of quick trot, or perhaps, more correctly, a very fast crawling; and although in the daytime they seem sluggish animals, one is surprised at the wonderful agility which they exhibit at night, or when in danger of life.

The breeding takes place all the year round, and the young remains in the pouch of the mother until it acquires the thick fur characteristic of the adult animal. After this stage of development it follows the parents for a longer space of time, probably until its own sexual propensities are awakened.

The food is grasped first with the mouth, afterwards with the hand, the first and second fingers of which may be put in contraposition to the others. As a rule the left hand is used. They eat sitting on the hind legs, in a very prone position, the back shot up, the head and fore limbs low. Water they lick in the same way as a dog. The meal finished, the face and snout are cleaned with the fore paws, very much on the same principle as that employed by the Cat, but, contrary to the Cat, they use both fore paws at once, one on each side of the face.

Their temperament must be characterized as soft, but attacked they will defend themselves fiercely with teeth and claws. Fights between the males are scarce, or do not perhaps take place at all; but the female sometimes vigorously pulls the ears of her better half, a course of proceeding which may with impunity be adopted, as she is the bigger and stronger of the two.

The muscular power of the animal in proportion to its size must be termed colossal, and a man must strain every nerve and fibre of the hand and arm to master a living individual.

The "Wogoit" is an utterly nocturnal animal, and can only with great difficulty bear the daylight, and except compelled by the utmost necessity never leaves the stone-heap or cave where it lives.

The eye has in the darkness a strong glow like a flashing ruby, and death is accompanied by a strong dilatation of the vertical pupil.

In captivity it very soon becomes familiar with the man who feeds it, but soon dies when removed from its native land, with the loss of its usual food, and the climatic conditions of the country where it was born.

Trichosurus vulpecula. "Vie"; "Uia"; "Uidda."

Being strongly pursued by the aborigines and easily caught, this species is not numerous in any portion of Arnhem Land. It is nearly everywhere to be found, but the traveller may search the moonlit woods night after night without seeing a single animal, and in no locality do its numbers in any way approach those of the southern colonised parts of the continent. The brown variety was only found in the jungle around the river Daly, and all the specimens shot or captured in the open Eucalyptus forest were of the common bluish grey colour. In the vicinity of Roebuck Bay, Western Australia, the species was occasionally met with, and in all the specimens I examined the fur was of the latter colour.

The Trichosurus vulpecula breeds in the north all the year round, and only one young is found in the pouch of the female.

On leaving the pouch of the mother animal the fur of a juvenile specimen has a strong grassy green tinge, which gradually fades, and after two or three weeks gives place to the general colouring of the adult.

Captured in infancy, it is, like most marsupials, easily tamed, and after a time gets very attached to man.

They eat almost any vegetable, from a grass-root to the fruit of the tallest Eucalyptus, and seem to require a good supply of water. In captivity they will drink at least once a day, generally a little after sundown, and on lagoons and rivers their tracks are generally seen at the water's edge.

Petaurus breviceps. "Lambalk."

The Little Flying Squirrel is found all over Arnhem Land, but owing to its small size and mode of hiding in the hollow branches of large trees, I always found it difficult to obtain. It is nowhere numerous, but more common along the coast than in the interior. I only succeeded in securing specimens on a few occasions.

Like all the other Phalangistidæ, it is strictly nocturnal, and using its flying membrane the little animal will swiftly move from tree to tree searching for food. The "flying" only consists in sliding from a higher tree to a lower one, or to the ground, using the large expansion of the skin between the fore and hind legs as a parachute. Curiosity will sometimes induce this little Squirrel to visit one's camp, and on one of the heads of the Mary river I remember one of these little animals appearing every night towards daybreak, examining our camp, until one day we discovered its hiding place in a hollow tree and killed it.

The Petaurus having no pouch, the young simply adhere to the teats of the mother. During their most helpless stages I am inclined to believe they are always fixed to the mother in this way, this being also the case with other marsupials destitute of a pouch, such as the Dasyuridæ. Later on the young are undoubtedly left behind in the lair, as their size and number would prevent the mother from moving with sufficient ease. They are sucklings until they have reached half the size of an adult individual, and their number is three; at least, that was the number in the only case I had the opportunity of observing.

In the vicinity of Roebuck Bay this species was not uncommon.

Dasyurus hallucatus. "Jirian"; "Tjabbo."

This species occurs nearly everywhere in Arnhem Land, but according to my experience never plentifully except in the mountainous parts of the country. Although in the forest-clad plains it resorts to the hollow trees as a hiding-place, the broken rocks and boulders in the mountain ranges seem to have a greater attraction, and in their branching caves and crevasses the little "native Cat" finds a secure resting-place.

Although the habits of the animal are nocturnal, it very often commences hunting a little before sunset, and I once saw it moving about in broad daylight.

Walking or running it carries its tail erect like the Felis domesticus. It is not a very fast runner, and on horseback, in open country, is easily overtaken.

The young ones are at birth only the size of a very small pea; and their number is, compared with that of other marsupials, very great, nearly every teat of the mother carrying one.

The crippled trees of the northern forests form the nightly hunting-grounds of the species, and its food consists of insects and small vertebrates. Occasionally it goes down to water to drink. It is a nuisance in meat-stores, will greedily eat fat or tallow, and with this as a bait is easily enticed into a trap. The settlers accuse it of bloodthirstiness, and of wantonly murdering fowls or chickens like the European Weasels, qualities which in my opinion are more attributable to another representative of the Dasyuridæ, the Phascologale penicillata.

Phascologale penicillata. "Wombo."

This pretty little species, commonly termed "Brush-tailed Rat" by the colonists, is one of the most widely ranging of Australian Dasyuridæ. It is found nearly all over the continent. In Arnhem Land it appeared to be most common towards the central parts. In the coast country, and around the long tidal river-mouths, I only once saw it, and the "Wombo," as the natives call it, seems to be more adapted to the dry inland scrubs than to the better watered jungles and forests of the coast. In the low broken ranges between Fountain Head and Union Town, and on the railway line, it generally occurred; and also on the rivers Mary and Katherine it was frequently observed. In fact, nearly everywhere inland it was very constant, and on a moonlight walk one would generally expect to see this little marsupial nimbly climbing about amongst the twisting branches of the box tree, or the red gum, whose hollow trunks serve it as a shelter during the daytime.

In the fowl-yards of the settlers it commits serious depredations, and at the store at Fountain Head two dozen fowls were killed in three weeks by these little bloodsuckers, who seem to possess the same devilish thirst for blood as the Weasels of Europe.

The "Wombo" is a smart and clever climber, and moves with great swiftness in a sudden jerky manner, which enables the traveller easily to detect it in a moonlight night. Very often it will, either from curiosity, or in search of food, approach one's pack-bags in the camp, and most bushmen accuse it of eating the fat of their dried salt beef. Two young ones were once brought to me by the natives. Close to Roebuck Bay, Western Australia, a specimen was shot and preserved, but the species did not seem to be common, as this single specimen was the only one observed during five months' collecting in this locality.

Sminthopsis nitela.

This beautiful little species, which Prof. R. Collett, in the 'Proc. Zool. Soc. of London,'[3] has described as new to science, was brought to me by the natives on the Daly river, about sixty miles from the coast. According to their evidence, it was found sleeping in holes in the ground. Undoubtedly it is nocturnal in its habits, like the other Dasyuridæ.

Phascologale flavipes leucogaster.

This occurred in the same locality as the above-mentioned species. Only one specimen came under my notice, and my native collectors brought it to me tied with a string round the hind leg. When placed on the ground it exhibited considerable agility. Presumably its habits are nocturnal.

Petrogale concinna. "Bolwak."

This rare little "Rock Wallaby" was met with only in two places in Arnhem Land. Once on the Daly I shot a single specimen on an unknown mountain on the eastern side of the river, about one hundred miles from the river mouth. Subsequently I met the species in the broken granitic country around Mount Gardiner, to the west of the river Mary, and there it occurred in great numbers.

Deep in the caverns and crevices amongst the colossal granite boulders, where the rays of the sun never reach, the little wary "Bolwak" spends the day, sleeping lightly. It is easily disturbed, and will with astonishing agility flee from rock to rock. Their speed and dexterity is simply marvellous, and seeing one of these little wallabies running through the broken country, one might almost imagine it to be the shadow of a bird flying swiftly overhead. The stone seems to afford a better hold for their rough-soled feet than the soil, and they always, when running, keep to the rock, turning and twisting themselves with cat-like cleverness, and running up or down apparently perpendicular cliffs with the same ease as on the level. They will squeeze through nearly any opening, are extremely shy, and I never in my wide wanderings met an animal that puts a man's shooting more to the test. Just at sunset they come out and, perched on the rocks a short time before commencing to feed, they seem to enjoy the cool evening air and the gorgeous tropical sunset. The least noise will then disturb them, even in places where the crack of a gun has never been heard, and, like flitting shadows, their light forms will noiselessly vanish among the broken boulders. Occasionally they will go down to water to drink, but they do not seem to require it as often as many other Macropodidæ. They breed all the year round. Only one young is born at a time, and the mother abandons it immediately when in danger.

Petrogale brachyotis. "Doria"; "Petpungo."

This handsome "Rock Wallaby" was met with in the same localities as the P. concinna, but seems to prefer country with larger features. It has a far wider range, and is found on nearly every large broken hill or mountain. In the torn and rugged sandstone ranges around the mouth of the Victoria river, and in the large central table-land in Arnhem Land, great numbers were observed.

Its mode of life and habits are very much the same as those of P. concinna, but, being a heavier animal, it is less graceful, and is without the marvellous agility and swiftness of that animal.

Onychogale unguifera. "Karrabbal."

This pretty Wallaby, the tail of which at its extreme point is furnished with a very peculiar horny spike or nail, was only observed in one locality in Arnhem Land.

Around Fountain Head and the Glencoe cattle depôt the country assumes a certain desert-like character; crippled scrub is scattered over vast flats, where innumerable ant-hills tower like churches with domes and minarets, brick-red and baked in the parching sun. In these barren surroundings the little Wallaby was sometimes found sleeping in a tussock of coarse spear-grass. When disturbed it would utter a quickly repeated guttural u-u-u, and flee with great swiftness. When the animal is running it carries the tail, like other Macropodidæ, curved down backward and upward, but in a stronger and more pronounced degree, so as to nearly form a semicircle. The head and fore part of the body is at the same time carried lower, and more stooping than customary with wallabies or kangaroos.

In the vicinity of Roebuck Bay it was frequently found on the edges of the large open coast plains, chiefly choosing the dense Melaleuca thickets for resting. Towards sundown the pretty animals might be observed on the open patches amongst the thickets cropping the green grass of the rainy season. In the dry time of the year Melaleuca leaves and grass-roots undoubtedly form a greater part of their diet.

As a rule the Onychogale is very shy, and in none of the above mentioned localities did it occur in great numbers, more than one or two seldom being seen in a day's march.

Bettongia lesueurii. "Jalva."

In the sandy country surrounding Roebuck Bay, Western Australia, the ground was nearly everywhere and in all directions excavated by the burrows of this little Macropod, which by the aborigines of the place is called "Jalva," and by the few Europeans generally termed "Kangaroo-rat." The animals avoid the open plains, but all the scrubs, and especially the slopes of the gently rising and falling sandhills, are inhabited by countless numbers. Several animals, in fact a whole colony, dig their burrows quite close together, and all the different channels communicate with each other, so that each animal does not have a separate dwelling. The burrows have not, like those of the fox or the badger, the opening constantly turned down the slope of the hill, but run in all directions. The animals do not seem to find it more difficult to throw the débris up than down the decline of the hill. Digging for their food, which chiefly consists of a small ground-nut called by the natives "nalgoa," they pursue the same course as mentioned in their burrowing, never paying any regard to whether they are digging up or down hill. Not only do the individuals in a colony inhabit the communicating burrows in common, but even between different colonies intermigration takes place—in fact, all the animals within a fairly large area seem to form one large family, the members of which are very independent of each other. The "Jalva," of course, must be termed a gregarious animal, but the gregarious disposition of each individual is not in any remarkable degree pronounced. The fact that the animals are living together in colonies may, I think, be better explained by considering that long experience in the course of time has undoubtedly taught them that it is far easier for ten or perhaps one hundred animals to dig a complicated burrow than for one to do so.

The day is spent sleeping in the channels of the burrow, and just at sunset or immediately after the "Jalvas" commence to appear outside. Nimbly skipping amongst the sand-heaps and the scanty herbage, the agile animals very soon saunter off in search of food. All night they are roaming about feeding, and, according to my experience, they never drink, at least during the dry season. Their tracks were never seen near any well nor on the shore of the ocean, and, although a watering trough for cattle was situated within two hundred yards of one of the places where I used to procure my specimens, I invariably failed in discovering tracks of the animals at the little pool of water which procured its supply from the leaking trough.

However crooked and complicated the burrows of the "Jalva" are, still some of their most dangerous enemies are not prevented from intrusion. The large pythons, for instance, Python molurus and Aspidites melanocephalus, frequently visit the colonies in search of prey. I have never caught the pythons in the act of devouring the animals, but the unmistakable large tracks of these snakes—the largest in this locality—were often seen leading in and out through the different holes of the "Jalva" colonies; and the natives unanimously affirmed that the snakes came there to eat the "Jalvas." In the north I have frequently found hair and bones of Petrogale brachyotis in the excrements of large snakes.

During the long dry season the aborigine is not a very dangerous enemy to the "Jalva," but when the rains set in, and, especially in a heavy wet season, perfectly soak the ground, the burrows collapse. The boggy condition of the earth does not admit of any new digging, and the unfortunate animals are compelled to seek a very unsafe shelter in the grass. Flushed from its place of hiding, and being a poor runner, the "Jalva" is easily overtaken by the native and his dogs, large numbers being often killed in a short time.

One young is born at a time, and the breeding goes on continuously all the year round.

Macropus robustus. Male, "Tjikurr"; female, "Tjugeri."

The large black "Wallaroo" of South-eastern Australia was observed only in the sandstone ranges of the central table-land in Arnhem Land. In the wild and broken cliffs or precipices surrounding the large gullies where the South Alligator river flows, and a white man has seldom before wandered, a scanty tribe of the Robust Kangaroo was struggling for life against the steady onslaught of the aboriginal hunter of these lonely mountain valleys. Not long ago, my dark companions affirmed, the "Tjikurr" abounded; but constant hunting had reduced their number to a minimum. The frequent occurrence of old excrements and well-worn paths amongst the rocks amply corroborated the statements of the natives; only now and then a specimen could be seen, and a female with a young one in its pouch was all I obtained (June, 1895).

In the shade of some overhanging rock, in cracks and crevices, and even in the deep dark caves and caverns in the precipices of the table-land, honeycombed by the work of the ocean thousands of years ago, the "Tjikurr" was sleeping during the hot tropical day. The least noise would disturb it. Even the light patter of the naked feet of the aborigine would start the wary sleepers, and cause the black animals to flee with huge bounds through the broken rocky country. Their speed and agility is all the more surprising owing to the considerable size of the animals, and can only be compared to that of the little Petrogale concinna. They literally seem to fly through and over the most difficult obstacles. Without hesitation they would precipitate themselves down cliffs of considerable height, and with equally astonishing energy they would rapidly ascend apparently inaccessible mountain walls and heaps of boulders.

Macropus antilopinus. Male, "Koppo"; female, " Kondaltburu."

This large species, so rare in the collections of Europe, is exceedingly numerous in Arnhem Land. Although it seems to prefer hilly country, the traveller may often meet it in the plains at a considerable distance from any mountain. There did not seem to be any distinct rule for its occurrence. One would always be sure to find it in any big range, and in the undulating ironstone; in some places it was frequently seen, but not constant, and the only localities where I certainly never observed the slightest trace of it are the large open plains on the lower tidal portion of the river Daly. The large jungles also never seem to offer any attraction. In the sandstone ranges on Victoria river the animal abounded.

The "Red Wallaroo" is nearly always met with in great mobs, consisting of females, young, and young males. "Old men" or adult males are very often found single, or sometimes accompanied by a female, and strong animals of any sex or age may sometimes be observed single; but typically M. antilopinus is a gregarious animal.

In some mountain valley, or in the shade of some trees, the animals form what is commonly termed a "camp"; that is, each animal scratches a slight depression in the sandy soil, and there neatly coils itself up to sleep during the hottest part of the day. In the afternoon, or towards sundown, they commence feeding on the green shoots or roots of various grasses, and sometimes at considerable intervals they will make for water. For how long a period they can dispense with water I do not know, but this species, like so many Australian mammals, seems in a considerable degree to be independent of it. In places where water is abundant they do not seem to drink every day, and sometimes one will meet the "Red Wallaroo" in places where water could only be procured by travelling long distances.

All through the night the animals are feeding; even the early morning and forenoon are very often devoted to the same occupation, and only through the hottest part of the day they rest in the camp, to which they constantly return. With such precision do the Kangaroos—and especially the solitary ones—return to their usual camps, that the aboriginal hunter by this circumstance is greatly aided in killing them. Covered with mud from head to foot, to retard perspiration, he either stands in wait at the Kangaroos' camp or sneaks upon an already resting animal, and at a short range easily transfixes it with his spear.

The "Koppo" being the largest Kangaroo in the north, and its flesh highly prized by the natives, the animal is subject to a very vigorous persecution, and in consequence thereof is exceedingly shy and wary—so shy as to be almost unapproachable in certain localities to the European hunter.

To observe this large Kangaroo at a close range is a rare occurrence, and one that very seldom befell me; but one of the lay brothers of the Uniya mission-station on the Daly gave me a few facts from his experience. For a long time the missionaries were living to a great extent on Kangaroo flesh, and, being an excellent shot, it usually fell to the lot of this brother to procure the animals. Armed with a rifle, he would quietly invade the Kangaroo camp. The mob would then flee, and my lay brother, hiding himself amongst the stones, waited in perfect quietness. After some time the animals would return, first the young ones, then the adults, and very soon the camp life would go on as usual. The young animals would, according to his statement, exhibit great agility and playfulness, fight and box each others' ears, whereas the old individuals were more lazy and slow in their movements. An old Kangaroo will, with an utterly comical expression in its stupid face, stretch its huge limbs and scratch its ears like a sleepy man. When an "old man" was wounded it would pluckily attack, and my narrator had made a kind of rough cutlass which he employed in slashing down the wounded Kangaroos to save his small store of ammunition.

At any time of the year young animals which recently have left the pouch are seen accompanying their mothers, and I think this may justify the conclusion that the Macropus antilopinus, like most other marsupials, breeds all the year round.

Macropus agilis."Ma"; "Bulak."

The Jungle or River Kangaroo, the most common Macropus of the north, is found in countless numbers at nearly every large river in Arnhem Land. The day is spent resting in the shade of the jungle, where the animals, singly and in small droves, stretch themselves in shallow depressions scratched in the soil, sandy patches being preferred. Towards sundown, when the heat of the day is somewhat modified, they commence running about to feed. Every night the Jungle Kangaroo goes to the river to drink; but the time for its visit to water may vary, and is in a remarkable way influenced by the moon at different stages.

When the full moon rises just after sundown, and practically all night throws its bright vertical light over the landscape, the animals at any time, when thirst compels them, make for water. By crescent and decrescent moon, on the contrary, when only the first and last hours of the night are dimly illuminated, sundown is for all Kangaroos the signal to seek water. They must have light; in darkness no Kangaroo dares to approach the river, and that with good reason; because at the drinking-place the hereditary foe of the species, the great Crocodilus porosus, is lying in wait, and, notwithstanding all precautions, its strong jaws close on many a young and inexperienced individual. Many are the victims which during lapse of time in this way have succumbed, and the species has in consequence, in especially exposed places, learnt to take its precautions to anticipate the cunning devices of the Crocodile.

Where long flat sand-banks stretch out into the river, Macropus agilis chooses its drinking place. Here the animals have a free view, and, what is more important, they do not need to drink at the very shore. For a distance of several yards from the water's edge they dig a hole in the water-soaked sand, patiently wait until this is filled, and thus safely quench their thirst. In places where no Crocodiles are found this course of proceeding becomes unnecessary, and is consequently not employed. These facts may be considered as illustrating to what a considerable degree difficult and strongly exposed conditions of life are capable of improving the intelligence of a species.

All night the Kangaroos are feeding in the open forest or in the plains, and shortly after sunrise they return to the jungles. Besides the Crocodile, the Jungle Kangaroo has only one enemy of importance—the aborigine; but, thanks to its cunning and the imperfect hunting methods of the native, the species is nearly everywhere exceedingly plentiful.

Sometimes this species is also found very numerous in dry desert-like regions along the coast, and it will be here observed that its need for water is considerably modified according to its surroundings. In the desert-like sandy plains around Roebuck Bay on the coast of West Australia the species was perhaps even more numerous than along the rivers of Arnhem Land. With two exceptions, no surface-water was here to be found, and the animals quenched their thirst either by the moisture obtainable with their food, or by going to the shore of the ocean and drinking the brine.

  1. Robert Collett (1897) - 'On a Collection of Mammals from North and North-west Australia,' in: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, pp. 317–336
  2. Shortly to be published.—Ed.
  3. Not yet published.—Ed.

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