Crocodiles, dugongs, and turtles- oh my!
Arnhem Land is not only a culturally significant place to the traditional owners, the Yolngu Peoples, but also a magnificent landscape full of different ecosystems from mangrove forests to coastal shorelines and from monsoonal wetlands to flood plains. And in each of those ecosystems lives a variety of native animals.
While exploring this wild and remote country, you’re likely to come across at least some of these animals and this guide will tell you everything you need to know about the different species that swim through Arnhem Land’s waters, run across its grounds, and soar through its skies.
You could even play animal bingo, counting how many species you’ve spotted as you adventure through Arnhem Land on your epic trip. Just a thought.
1. Saltwater crocodiles
Unofficially the mascot of the Northern Territory, the saltwater crocodile (baru) is an ancient, native, and protected creature, representing Yolngu Peoples mythology as a clan totem. Bigger in size than that of the freshwater crocodile, this magnificent but highly dangerous animal has been roaming Arnhem Land’s estuarine waterways for over 200 million years, feeding off anything that stumbles too close to its powerful mouth and the powerful bite pressure that comes with it.
Commonly known as a sit-and-wait predator, a fully grown, adult saltwater crocodile can reach up to 6 metres in length so if you do see one on your travels, give it a wide berth. Thankfully, there is adequate signage throughout the more popular recreation areas and visitor centres in Arnhem Land to warn you of crocs. It’s also wise to stay away from the water’s edge or do anything to attract potential crocodile activity.
While they are one of the most dangerous species in the world, they are also incredibly impressive and if you have the chance to observe them in the wild from a safe distance or with a trained professional, do it.
Another fascinating marine animal is the dugong, a large, grey water-dweller who spends most of its time on the seabed foraging for food. Found in coastal and inland waters, this peaceful creature can live for up to 70 years and is definitely worth admiring if you do come across one in the wild. While they can look a tad intimidating thanks to their 3-metre-long size, they are relatively harmful and relaxed animals, preferring to keep to themselves.
One of the cutest looking marsupials you’re likely to come across in Arnhem Land, the bilby is commonly recognised by its long, rabbit-like ears and silky blue-grey fur. Peaceful in nature, bilbies are often found in grassy sandplains and shrublands, sleeping in freshly dug burrows during the day and coming out at nighttime to seek out food in the form of termites, grass seeds, and small spiders.
Bilbies were once found in over 70% of Australia but due to predators, drier climates, and habit loss, that percentage has dropped to just 15% so while spotting this tiny creature may be hard, we thought the bilby still deserved a spot on this Arnhem Land animals list because of its status as one of Australia’s most beloved native marsupials.
4. Rainbow bee-eaters
Flitting around the trees in Arnhem Land is the rainbow bee-eater, a small and distinctive bird with tail streamers in blues, oranges, and greens. Usually found near water in woodlands and shrublands, these beautiful birds feast on bees, butterflies, and moths, and put on a rainbow-coloured show when they dive to catch an insect.
While there are heaps of different bird species flying from tree to tree all over Arnhem Land, the rainbow bee-eater is one of the most common ones found throughout the region, so you shouldn’t have any problem spotting it on your many adventures through this magical and fascinating country.
5. Hawksbill turtles
Arnhem Land is home to several species of turtles including the leatherback turtle, the green turtle, the loggerhead turtle, and the hawksbill turtle. With two major breeding grounds throughout Australia, one located on the Great Barrier Reef and the other in northeastern Arnhem Land, the hawksbill turtle is quite commonly found in warmer waters in tropical areas.
Recognised by their reddy-brown, greeny-blue scales on their shells, these beautiful creatures are breathtaking to behold, and if you’re travelling to Arnhem Land during July – October, you might even see a fresh hatchling or 20 as they make their way to the water.
6. Oenpelli pythons
Known as the rarest python in the world as it’s only found in the western area of Arnhem Land and has no recognised subspecies, the oenpelli python is culturally significant to Indigenous Peoples with many believing the snake inspired the famous rainbow serpent in Aboriginal mythology. Unfortunately, the oenpelli python is an endangered species and there are continued conservation efforts happening throughout the country to ensure it doesn’t join the list of extinct Aussie animals.
This means you probably won’t see one in the wild but the snake’s long and thin body is easily recognisable with dark, olive-brown skin and a pearly, iridescent sheen. Living out its life among sandstone outcrops and occasionally on trees in tropical areas, the oenpelli python is one of those Arnhem Land animals you’ll be hoping to spot (but keep a safe distance away from) on your epic journey through this magical country.
7. Golden bandicoots
Tiny in size (a fully grown bandicoot only weighs around 600g), the golden bandicoot has an elongated head shape and is distinguished from the bigger brown bandicoot by the shape of its hairs. This little marsupial is commonly found in the northeastern region of Arnhem Land and lives in shrubland or sandstone areas, avoiding heavily vegetated forests or anywhere with heavy tree cover.
While the golden bandicoot is a threatened species, you might be able to catch a glimpse of one as it scurries past you in its quest for termites and ants to eat.
8. Frilled neck lizards
One of the more bold and impressive Arnhem Land animals on this list is the frilled neck lizard. This lizard’s striking appearance is largely due to its magnificent neck frill, flaring up and encircling its face whenever it feels threatened or alarmed. Living the high life in the trees of tropical areas in northwestern Arnhem Land, this reptile has been known to jump down over 20m from their leafy habitats and run on their back legs if they spot a particularly tasty insect to eat.
These brightly-coloured lizards (their neck frills often display a combination of oranges and reds) also feature in local Dreamtime mythology with a tale that tells of secrets overheard and human to lizard transformations. If you’re lucky enough, you might catch a glimpse of one of these creatures scurrying along as you navigate the forested areas of this magical and impressive region.