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Australian Habitats - Session Topic 2
Australian Habitats: Back to Session Topic 2

Australia has a large range of habitats, due to its size and climates. The information on this page will explain the characteristics of each habitat. At the bottom of the page is a series of questions you need to answer. Make sure you read this page carefully and underline the important parts. Click on the links below to take you to that part of the page:
 
[Deserts]
[Mangroves]
[Scrublands]
[Waterways]
[Forests/Woodlands]
[Seashore]
[Rainforests]
[Heathlands]
[Tropical Wetlands]
[Alpine]
[Urban]



Deserts:
After Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent of Earth. In summer, temperatures can soar above 45oC during the day, yet be freezing cold at night. Deserts are mostly sandy dunes and plains, but also have gibber plains where the ground is covered with small pebbles, dry salt lakes and ancient rocky ranges. Small patches of low scrubby plants dot the landscape, as their long roots search for water deep underground. Rain is rare, but when is arrives, the desert bursts into life. Fresh green shoots spring from the ground, wildflowers bloom, insects and even fish appear as if by magic, and birds fly into feast. Surprisingly, a large number of animals live in the desert. They cope with the harsh conditions in a variety of ways. Most can survive for extended periods without water, and some never drink at all.

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Mangroves:
Mangrove forests and woodlands are found in many sheltered bay and river mouths along the northern and central coasts of Australia. They are a very delicate habitat between the land and the sea, and a nursery for coastal sea life. Their tangled roots trap silt washed down the rivers and help stabilize the shore. Mangroves once grew along most of Australia's coastal rivers, but large areas have been cleared to make way for houses and tourist resorts. The remaining mangrove forests and woodlands are vital breeding and feeding grounds for fish, snails, oysters and insects, and must be protected.

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Scrublands:
The scrublands of Australia fringe the dry heart of the continent, between the deserts and the open woodlands. The summers are long, and the winters can be very cold. Rainfall is low, but there is usually enough moisture to nourish low-growing mallee and acacia trees and hardy shrubs. Despite the hash conditions, these areas are rich with life and support many species of birds, reptiles and mammals. Food is often scarce and long droughts make it difficult to survive. During such times, some animals hibernate for a few days and live from fat stored in their bodies.

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Waterways:
These areas are the lifeblood of the dry Australian continent. Rivers and creeks carry precious rainwater from the mountain tops to the coastal plains and the dry interior. They flow into lakes and the ocean, snake across the flat lowlands, or soak into the desert rock. Wildlife is plentiful around the rivers and lakes, and includes some of Australia's most unusual creatures, such as the platypus and the snapping tortoise. Fish, frogs and waterbirds depend on the waterways for their survival, while other animals shelter amongst the riverside vegetation. Unfortunately, some of Australia's largest rivers have been dammed to supply towns and farms with water. They are also polluted by fertilizers and poisonous chemicals.

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Forests and Woodlands:
The forests and woodlands grow around the edges of Australia. Most of the trees are eucalypts, which are also known as "gum trees" because of their sticky sap. In moist areas they grow tall and straight and form dense forests, but in dry areas they are widely spaced and form open woodlands with tough, spiny shrubs beneath them. Each tree houses a whole lot of life. Birds and mammals nest in the tree hollows and branches, insects feed on the leaves and live beneath the bark. Creatures such as beetles and spiders make their homes among the fallen leaves and branches on the forest floor.

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Seashore:
The seashore is one of the most challenging habitats. Many small animals live between the high and low water lines. They may be flooded by the sea , dried out by the sun and wind, and drenched by rain. Some hide in rocks pools or burrow beneath the sand when the tide is out. Others move up and down the beach following the rise and fall of the tide. The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's richest seashore habitat and one of the natural wonders of the world. It spans 2000 km and supports more animals life than any other region on Earth. This massive structure has been created by millions of tiny animals called coral polyps, and took hundreds of thousands of years to build.

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Rainforests:
Rainforests are the richest of all the land habitats, and the most threatened. More than half of Australia's mammals and birds, and one quarter of the reptiles and amphibians live in our shrinking rainforests. Beneath the dense, leafy canopy are kangaroos that climb trees, enormous flightless birds and harmless forest dragons. Most animals are shy and well camouflaged. They either feed on the leaves of the trees or  burrow among the decaying leaves for fallen seeds and insects. Rainforests grow on the northern and eastern coasts where there is good soil and plenty of rain. They once covered vast areas of land, but in the last 200 years three quarters of Australia's rainforests have been destroyed for timber or to provide land for farming.

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Heathlands:
These areas form vast green carpets along the coast, in the highlands, and on the southern sandplains of Australia. They are communities of low shrubs, often blown into strange, flat-topped shapes. Heathland plants are tough and hardy with prickly leaves. Among their low branches are many hiding places for small animals, such as the rare ground parrot and the dibbler. Fires often burn through Australia's heathlands. Many plants rely on the fires to crack open their seed pods so that the seeds can germinate when it rains. In spring, the heaths burst into flower, birds fly in to drink the sweet nectar and catch insects, and then carry the pollen from plant to plant.

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Tropical Wetlands:
Monsoon rains poor down on the coastal plains of tropical northern Australia from November to March, bringing relief from the heat and high humidity. The sluggish rivers become raging torrents and flood the countryside, creating the largest wild tropical wetlands in the world. Land animals flee to rocky outcrops and hills, while water animals are free to spread out over the growing wetlands. Food is plentiful, and most animals take advantage of the good conditions to breed. During the long dry season the creeks and rivers slowly dry out. Many plants wither in the heat and food becomes scarce. Other animals hide from the heat in damp burrows and rocky crevices.

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Alpine:
The alpine regions are found in the mountain ranges of Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. It becomes cooler as you go higher and above a certain height, know as the tree line, it is too cold even for trees to grow. Fierce winds howl across the mountain tops, and in winter the temperature drops as low as -220C. For months the ground is covered by snow and only small animals can find enough food to survive. Most animals move to the warmer, lower slopes and return in summer when the temperature rises and the plants are flowering.  Mammals in these areas have thick fur coats to keep them warm, and some animals hibernate during the colder months.

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Urban:
Most Australian animals find towns impossible to live in, as there is too little to eat and few places to hide. Cats and dogs prowl the suburbs, cars speed along the roads and poisonous chemicals pollute the air and water. Danger is everywhere. However, some species have adapted to urban life and people living on the fringes of towns sometimes see large animals, such as bandicoots and blue-tongued lizards. Fortunately, most Australian towns have parks and gardens which provide food and shelter for wildlife. Flowering trees and shrubs attract birds, while lizards, insects and other small animals search for food and hid among the fallen branches and leaves.

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Comprehension Questions:
1. Which habitat is described as being "very delicate" and is a vital breeding ground for marine life?
Answer:
2. How long is Australia's Great Barrier Reef?
Answer:
3. In which habitat would you most likely find eucalypts, also known as "gum trees"?
Answer:
4. How low can temperatures fall in Alpine areas?
Answer:
5. Which continent is the driest continent on Earth?
Answer:
6. Which habitat is home to some of Australia's most unusual creatures (Eg. platypus)?
Answer:
7. How much of Australia's rainforests have been destroyed in the last 200 years?
Answer:
8. The plants in which habitat rely on fires to help their seeds germinate?
Answer:
9. Which habitat is full of dangers for most Australian animals?
Answer:
10. Which areas are "the lifeblood of the dry Australian continent"?
Answer:

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1 September 2000