Australia's Unique Animals
Is a koala a bear? Do Tasmanian devils spin? Experts at Sydney's Taronga Zoo debunk wildlife myths.
A baby wombat at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
If you thought wombats had wings and slept upside down in caves, you need to plan a trip to Sydney, Australia, and spend a day at Taronga Zoo. This popular attraction, which sits on a cliff overlooking Sydney Harbor, is home to a wide array of animals. They have a menagerie of birds, primates, elephants and giraffes, as well as native Australian wildlife like the wombat, a marsupial that burrows instead of climbing trees like its well-known relative, the koala.

Currently, Taronga is home to a baby wombat named Mirrhi that's being raised by Amy Twentyman, a wildlife nurse. Mirrhi—the Aboriginal word for “little girl”—was orphaned after her mother was struck and killed by a car. “She was thrown out of the pouch,” Amy says. “But, luckily, the people that found her bought her to the wildlife hospital, and we’ve had her ever since.” The zoo's wildlife hospital treats and rehabilitates up to 1,500 native animals every year, and their goal is to return as many animals as possible back into the wild.

Watch Amy and Mirrhi interact. Watch

Taronga zoo keepers like Amy often become surrogate parents to orphaned animals, and just like any mom, Amy is responsible for getting up at all hours of the night to feed and tend to Mirrhi's needs. “It’s harder than a human baby though. I can’t just pop down to the shops with a wombat, so I have to time everything around the feeds,” Amy says. “It’s very much a balancing act.”

After spending months at a time with baby animals like Mirrhi, Amy admits she does get attached. “She’s my little baby,” Amy says. “I don’t have children of my own. I have animals.”
A koala at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
At Taronga Zoo, visitors can also get within arm's reach of Australia's beloved marsupial, the koala. Becky Usmar, a trainer who works in the Koala Encounter exhibit, clears up some common myths about these adorable balls of fur.

“The common [myth] is that they are bears,” Becky says. “Koalas actually do resemble bears, but they are actually a marsupial species, which means, theoretically, human beings are more related to a bear species than any koala is.”

Go inside Taronga Zoo's Koala Encounter with Becky. Watch

And, no, koalas are not “drunk” or “high” on eucalyptus leaves. “Koalas do need to sleep for about 20 hours every single day, so that’s what spreads the myths around,” Becky says. “If you look up what makes eucalyptus, it has lots of water, but it doesn’t have much energy in it. It’s the equivalent of you or I trying to live off of lettuce. ... When koalas are awake, they spend a lot of their energy eating their food and digesting it, and then by the time they finish eating, they are ready to go have a nap again.”

In fact, koalas eat so many of these leaves, they take on a distinctive odor from eucalyptus oil similar to cough drops.
A quokka at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Outside of Australia, most people have never heard of a quokka, a marsupial that resembles a pint-size kangaroo. Sometimes referred to as a "short-tailed wallaby," this animal has strong hind legs, which help it hop and climb small trees.

Large numbers of quokkas are found in Western Australia on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth. It's said that a Dutch explorer gave the island this name because it was inhabited by "rats the size of cats."
A Tasmanian Devil at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Tasmanian Devil
Don't be fooled by this animal's sinister name or information you've gleaned from watching Saturday morning cartoons. This feisty marsupial poses little to no threat to humans. Considered the "vacuum cleaner" of the animal world, Tasmanian devils usually feed on carcasses found along the side of the road in their native Tasmania.

Sadly, Taronga zookeeper Tony Brit Lewis says these animals, which got their devilish name because their thin ears glow red in the sunlight, are decreasing in number because a facial tumor disease is wiping out populations in the wild. Taronga is part of a breeding program working to save this species and determine the cause of this rare, contagious cancer.
A Western Gray Kangaroo at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Western Gray Kangaroo
When you think of Australian wildlife, you think of kangaroos. Many of these iconic marsupials call Taronga Zoo home, and all three species—Western Gray, Eastern Gray and Red Kangaroo—are represented. At the zoo's education center, visitors can touch and interact with kangaroos that have been hand-reared by keepers.

In the wild, kangaroos live in groups called "mobs." Mobs can be as small as two or as large as 100 kangaroos.
Echidna at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
With a spiky exterior and long snout, this egg-laying mammal is one-of-a-kind. The echidna can be found waddling across all sorts of terrain, from forests and rocky areas to snowy mountains and sandy plains.

“They’re probably the oldest mammal. Their fossil records go back 55 million years, and yet, if I do a checklist of my most successful mammal, that would be at the top of my list,” says Paul Maguire, Taronga Zoo's education manager. “I love how charismatic they are and how amazing they are—they’re just still here doing their business after such a long period of time.”

Paul discusses Taronga Zoo's history and conservation efforts. 

Echidnas are also surprisingly sneaky. “Our three echidna are called Puglsey, Ned and Spike. People don’t believe me, but at the back of my office is a screen door, and I've seen Pugsey climb up the screen door,” Paul says. “So Pugsley goes up, up the screen door and he goes across—five times this has happened—and he goes and sits on the door handle, and the door handle comes down. [Then,] Spike opens it at the bottom.”
An emu at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
The emu, one of the largest birds in the world, is the national bird of Australia. It even has a place of honor on the Australian Coat of Arms alongside a kangaroo. Both of these animals are symbolic because they can only walk forward—they can't go backward.
A Brushtail Possum at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Brushtail Possum
Like Mirrhi, the baby wombat, this Brushtail Possum was orphaned by its mother and hand-raised by a wildlife nurse at Taronga. This nocturnal marsupial seeks comfort in a small cloth sack, which replicates the mother possum's pouch. Some of these pseudo-pouches are hand-knitted by Australian women.
A baby crocodile at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Sometimes referred to as a "salty" by Australians, the saltwater crocodile is the largest reptile on the planet. Though it's hard to imagine when looking at a juvenile croc, an adult male can grow up to 17 feet in length and weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
A Red Kangaroo at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Red Kangaroo
The Red Kangaroo is the world's largest marsupial, and it's powerful hind legs help it reach speeds of 35 miles an hour! Millions of these herbivores roam the Australian countryside, and many locals compare them to North American deer. But, with their soft fur and sweet faces, they're still favorites at Taronga Zoo.
Corroboree Frog at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Corroboree Frog
With only about 150 to 200 of these brightly colored frogs left in the world, experts like Michael McFadden are working to bring them back from the brink of extinction. “In the facility we are standing in today [at Taronga Zoo], we have about double what’s left in the world, so they are in real dire straights at the moment,” Michael says.

Watch Michael discuss Corroboree frog conversation efforts. Watch

Throughout the year, Michael and other frog experts travel to Kosciuszko National Park, the Corroboree frogs' natural habitat, to take a population census and release zoo-bred eggs and frogs into the field.
Bilbies at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
In Taronga Zoo's Nocturnal House, bilbies frolic and feed. Vanessa Stebbings, one of the zoo keepers, says these furry marsupials are becoming a popular Australian alternative to the Easter Bunny.

“We have an Easter bilby program, and instead of a chocolate rabbit, you can buy a chocolate bilby and proceeds go to the Save a Bilby Foundation,” Vanessa says. “You can see their large ears. They are often referred to as a native rabbit, but they are not closely related to a rabbit at all.”
A Feather-Tailed Glider at Sydney's Taronga Zoo
Feather-Tailed Glider
Vanessa also introduces a tiny, nocturnal feather-tailed glider, the smallest species of glider in Australia. "They have a flap of skin that runs from their wrist all the way down to their ankle and that works kind of like a parachute," Vanessa says. "These little fellas will glide from tree to tree."

Their sticky feet also help them climb trees...and their handlers!