When most people think of Australia, they think of kangaroos and the dry, flat expanse of the Outback. But this was not always so. Fossil records show forests once covered the Red Centre, but now only a fraction of these forests remain - Australia’s World Heritage listed Wet Tropics.
The rainforests of the Wet Tropics, regarded by world authorities as a living museum of flora and fauna, were World Heritage listed in 1988. The Wet Tropics covers an area of nearly 900,000 hectares of rainforest and tropical vegetation, stretching for more than 400 kilometres from just north of Townsville to just south of Cooktown.
When most people think of Australia, they think of kangaroos and the dry, flat expanse of the Outback. But this was not always so. Fossil records show forests once covered the Red Centre, but now only a fraction of these forests remain - Australia’s World Heritage listed Wet Tropics Rainforests.
The rainforests of the Wet Tropics, regarded by world authorities as a living museum of flora and fauna, were World Heritage listed in 1988. The Wet Tropics covers an area of nearly 900,000 hectares of rainforest and tropical vegetation, stretching for more than 400 kilometres from just north of Townsville to just south of Cooktown. Here, pockets of primitive plants have remained undisturbed for millions of years, and rare, even previously unidentified species of birds, insects and mammals have emerged to delight biologists and nature lovers.
Entering the rainforest, the temperature drops a couple of degrees and the light becomes soft and dappled under the thick green canopy of branches and leaves. Layers of twisting vines, palms and orchids wrap around tree buttresses, and the forest floor smells of growth and moist decay.
These rainforests also harbour the greatest diversity of primitive flowering plants found anywhere else on earth. Once flowering plants evolved they quickly dispersed across the planet with help from animals which were attracted by their nectar, pollen and fruit.
Striding through the rainforest of Far North Queensland is a very large flightless bird, the cassowary; known as gardeners of the forest because they play such an important part in dispersing rainforest seeds. Unlike many other fruit-eating birds which use grit in their digestive systems to break up the seeds as well as the flesh, cassowaries have a 'gentle' digestive system which passes the seeds unharmed, into a pile of compost, many kilometres from the parent plant. It has been estimated that 70-100 species of rainforest plants depend almost entirely on the cassowary to disperse their seeds. But with fewer than 1500 adult cassowaries left, the survival of each individual bird is critical for the future of the rainforest. Their greatest threat is loss of habitat, an escalating problem that began when the region was settled over 100 years ago.
Rainforests only cover 6% of the Earth's surface; but this is home to 50% of all the animal and plant species on Earth and provide us with many foods, raw materials and medicines. The forests play an important role in the carbon cycle by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon in plant material and soil. This is called sequestration. Burning or clearing a forest releases the stored carbon.
About 3,000 plant species from 210 families are found in the Wet Tropics. Twelve out of the world's 19 families of primitive flowering plants grow here and within these families, there are at least 50 species found only in the Wet Tropics. While many of the plants in the rainforest have been around for millions of years, some ferns have been around for much longer than that. This is an area that provides an unparalleled living record of the ecological and evolutionary processes that shaped the flora and fauna of Australia over the past 415 million years.
This Wet Tropics area is home to about a third of Australia's 315 mammal species; 13 of these species are found nowhere else in the world. They include unique green possums, ringtail possums, fierce marsupial cats, rare bats, tree-kangaroos, a rat-kangaroo, a melomys and an antechinus. There are many spectacular insects to see in Australia's tropical rainforests. Invertebrates that inhabit these forests include crustaceans, worms, beetles, ants, spiders, mites, scorpions, amblypygids, centipedes and millipedes, not to mention the snails and slugs. While the Wet Tropics region is home to a quarter of Australia's frogs and a little over a third of the country's freshwater fish, it is also home to nearly half of Australia's birds - that's more than 370 different species.
Bushwalking along well maintained trails, camping overnight (with permits), Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander interpretive heritage tours, ranger-guided walks, all terrain vehicle tours with commentary by qualified biologists are some of the ways to experience the rainforests of the Tropical North. Step into the cool shade of the Wet Tropics rainforest and take a walk back in time through some of the oldest jungles on earth.
For more information contact the Wet Tropics Management Authority at www.wettropics.gov.au