Curious creatures offering clues

Going to Australia in January for a family wedding gave us an opportunity to see some of the animals that represent earlier stages of mammal evolution.

Observing the “living fossils” of early mammals and seeing my nephew make a conscious choice to marry and continue our branch of the human species made me think of the Roman god Janus. He was the god of gates and doors who had two faces looking in opposite directions. He could see both the past and the future.

Australia broke away from the other continents first carrying a variety of animals with it about 175 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. Before that break, geologists believe that all the continents were together in one supercontinent called Pangaea near the equator.

There in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras dinosaurs roamed the earth, and mammals were just emerging.

Many of the curious creatures shown on the news during Australia’s fires last December are marsupials. They have a pouch where their developing young can nurse in a protected place until they are ready to survive on their own. These little joeys can go out and back as they get grow stronger. The best known Australian marsupials are Kangaroos.

We were able to walk among midsized Kangaroos and Wallabies at the Cleland Wildlife Park run by the Department of Water and Natural Resources near Adelaide, Australia.

They came up to visitors for food, and they would allow us to touch them gently. Although their large hind legs were great for jumping, they were very awkward and ineffective for walking on all fours. When the Roos stood on their back legs and held up their small front arms, I wondered if they were an experimental evolutionary species preparing for us to stand on two legs.

Modern Australia is about the size of the United States, and much of the land is sandy or rocky desert near the center of the continent. The green coastal areas support most of the wildlife. The Eucalypt Forests along the eastern coast line are home to the furry Koala. They are marsupials, and they are not carnivorous like true bears. They live in Eucalypt trees and eat the leaves staying in the trees most of the time.

The Koala are endangered by the spread of Chlamydia, a venereal disease that causes the females to become sterile. The remaining healthy Koalas were on Kangaroo Island, and many of them died in the recent fires. Australian nature preserves are working to find ways to treat the disease to save some of these animals.

Animal lore to be continued next week.


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