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David Attenborough's Tasmania

Tasmania lies on the Australian continent, but is a world apart. It’s isolation, cooler climate and distinct seasons govern a world of black devils and white wallabies.

Tasmania lies at the southern tip of the Australian continent. It is a vast, island wilderness of ancient forests and pristine rivers, surrounded by spectacular coastline. Its animal inhabitants are every bit as extraordinary as they are bizarre: a cast of black devils, white wallabies, miniature penguins and giant trees. With Antarctica the next landfall south, their lives are governed by the cool climate and strong seasonal calendar. Tasmania may be part of Australia, but life here is very different indeed.   

Tasmania experiences greater seasonal change than anywhere else in Australia. Winter is the most challenging time of year, as temperatures fall below freezing and snow covers the landscape. On the mainland, animals like wombats, wallabies and platypus are mostly nocturnal, avoiding the daytime heat. In Tasmania, however, the cooler temperatures mean they feed and move around in broad daylight. Any animals that don’t survive the tough winter months become a valuable resource for Tasmania’s top carnivore, the Tasmanian devil. They can smell a carcass from one kilometre away and, relative to body size, have the most powerful bite in the natural world.

Spring in Tasmania brings milder temperatures. Along the coast, little penguins come ashore to breed. They’re the smallest penguins in the world, standing at just 30cm tall. Because predators patrol the coastline by day, little penguins can only leave the water to feed their chicks at night: their nests hidden safely amongst rocks at the back of the beach.

This time of year can also bring wild weather to Tasmania, most of which comes from the west, due to prevailing winds. Tasmania’s high mountains cause the majority of rain to fall on the western half of the island. The result divides Tasmania in two, with a dry eastern half and a wet western half. All the moisture in the western half of Tasmania has made it home to both spectacular caves full of glow-worms and the some of the tallest trees on earth, almost one hundred metres high.  

Summer in Tasmania is most apparent in the dry, eastern half of the island. This dry half is more reminiscent of the Australian mainland to the north, though there are animals here that are distinctly Tasmanian. Tasmania’s isolation has had a remarkable effect on one group of wallabies; they’ve turned white. White wallabies are so poorly camouflaged that elsewhere they’d be killed. However, the lack of large predators in Tasmania means most go on to live full adult lives. These dry forests are also home to one of Tasmania’s deadliest animals, the jack jumper ant. Jack jumpers are a very primitive ant species that sting prey to death with a venom that can kill humans.

Autumn’s arrival is marked by a bizarre event: the Tasmanian devil mating season. Females become receptive several times over just a few weeks and, to ensure the fittest young, will try to mate with as many males as possible. The males, however, have a very different objective. To maximise their chance of fathering young, they try to keep the female in their den for as long as possible. The result is a breeding system quite unlike anything else.

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