Wet Tropics of Queensland
Wet Tropics of Queensland represents only 0.1 percent of the continent’s land area but protects 30 percent of its marsupial species, 62 percent of its butterflies, 18 percent of its birds, 30 percent of its frogs, 23 percent of its reptiles. At least 54 of its vertebrates are found no place else, including such rarities as yellow-bellied gliders and brush-tailed bettongs.
Some 1,161 kinds of higher plants have been recorded—many endemic—including 90 kinds of orchids. It is second in the world only to New Caledonia in number of unique species per unit size. It is a U.N. World Heritage Site not only for its scientific importance but for breathtaking natural beauty—dramatic gorges, Australia’s highest waterfall, and a combination of virgin tropical rain forest—said to be oldest in the world—with white sandy beaches and fringing reefs between Daintree River and Cedar Bay. Here evolution has been virtually uninterrupted since flowering plants first appeared 130 million years ago. Australia’s only recognized Aboriginal rain forest culture is preserved here.
Paralleling the Great Barrier Reef just offshore, Wet Tropics incorporates a patchwork of 19 national parks, 31 state forests, five timber reserves, and Aboriginal and island reserves in a 3,450- square-mile (8,944-km2) protected area stretching from some 125 miles (200 km) north of Cairns to about 185 miles (300 km) south. Mammals include two monotremes—rare egg-laying echidnas and duck-billed platypus—and 37 marsupials, including an isolated population of spotted-tailed quolls (aka tiger cats), engaging-looking but ferocious marsupials, able to pursue and kill small wallabies with a single bite to the neck. Endemics include four kinds of ringtail possums, Australia’s only tree-kangaroos, and musky rat-kangaroos, smallest (weighing 17.5 ounces/500 g) and in many respects most primitive of all marsupials (only one with the original mammalian five toes). Here also are tube-nosed insectivorous murina florius bats, considered Australia’s rarest living mammal.
Birdlife is the continent’s most diverse with more than 370 species, including 23 that are endemic. These include flightless Australian cassowaries—up to six feet (2 m) tall, one of the world’s largest birds—striking, with high bony vertical helmets or casques, bright red and blue head skin, and sharp four-inch (12-cm) toe-claws that can disembowel prey. Among others are lovely golden bowerbirds, bridled honeyeaters, Australian fernwrens and chowchillas, which announce their names during the dawn chorus, as well as, more commonly, gorgeous rainbow lorikeets, collared kingfishers, sulfur-crested cockatoos, and emerald doves.
More than 5,000 species of insects and 300 of spiders include barking or bird-eating spiders with six-inch (15-cm) leg-spans; rare and enormous Queensland stag beetles whose closest relatives are in South America, named for antler-like mandibles with which males battle; brilliant Aenetus monabilis moths with eight-inch (18-cm) wingspans; Hercules moths, one of the world’s largest with up to 10-inch (25-cm) wingspans; and the continent’s largest butterflies, Cairns birdwings, sometimes mistaken for birds flying high in the canopy, males bright yellow, green, and blue.
Problems include logging, road-building, mining, and agriculture, both actual and threatened, legal and illegal, in nominally protected as well as adjacent areas which environmentalists think need protection also; land-management conflicts with Aboriginal inhabitants; and a “Skyrail” built for tourism which many feel damages ecosystems of canopy-dwelling species.
Dry season is April–September but as many visitors come in wet as in dry seasons. Dozens of tour companies offer trips, including river cruises, and it’s possible to stay at lodges located in mid-rain forest to observe nocturnal wildlife.