Common Walleroo
Common Walleroo


Chapter 6 - The Southern Ark

This chapter is a homage to Australia’s wildlife and particularly to its mammals. After a short introduction of their evolutionary history, I turn to some intriguing fossil finds before I move on to another remarkable thing about the Australian mammals which is less scientific albeit no less notable: nomenclature.



Have you ever studied a field guide to the Australian mammals and wondered about the many peculiar names? I don’t mean the scientific ones (we will leave them to the scientists…) but the common names. Apart from the odd straight forward names like desert short-tailed mouse that tells you exactly what to expect (namely a short-tailed mouse that lives in the desert) or long-haired rat (a rat with long hair) most names conceal the identity of the animal completely; and what’s more they sound as if they have been created by putting together the leftover letters on a scrabble board.


Change of scene. Two scientists bent over a pile of letters on a scrabble board.

Scientist A murmurs: »What do we have here? K, U, L, T, A and an R

Scientist B: »Do you remember the mouse-like creature discovered in 1856 by good old naturalist John Gould? It still hasn’t got a name. Why don’t we call it kultar – that’s another ten points.«

Scientist A slides the letters into the right position: »Great idea! Oops… there’s another R. What are we going to do with that?«

Scientist B: »Don’t worry mate put it at the end of the word, it’ll be all right.«


The kultarr is joined by a whole bunch of funny named species like planigales, kalutas, antechinuses, kowaris or mulgaras. Some of them have been named by European naturalists others have been renamed and given the Aboriginal name which often has an even more exotic sound like monjon or narbalek. For foreigners who are not familiar with the Australian wildlife these names could refer to anything from an elephant-sized fierce-looking carnivore to a mouse-sized cute-looking herbivore. And I am pretty sure that a lot of Australians would also struggle to tell me impromptu what a ningaui or ampurta looks like.


Sometimes the name gives you at least a bit of a hint of what to expect like a »fat-tailed dunnart«. Even if you don’t know what a dunnart is, there is a slight chance that coming across an animal with an unusually fat tail, that it IS a dunnart. When it comes to these helpful adjectives a lot of attention seems to be given to the shape and colour of the feet. There are yellow-footed rock wallabies, yellow-footed antechinuses, fawn-footed melomys and pig-footed bandicoots (sorry, »there WERE« would be more appropriate in the latter case as this species didn’t survive the arrival of Europeans…).


Yet, whatever the colour of the feet or the size of the tail is, one thing is almost certain,…