Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is home to a range of native and exotic fauna. The lake system provides habitat for eels and other aquatic species; the trees and shrubberies house a rich diversity of wildlife; and various mammals occupy habitats from the lake margins to the largest of trees.
The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is home to more than 50 different species of birds. Australian native bird species including the Black Swan (Cygnus atratus), Superb Fairy Wren (Malurus cyaneus), Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys), Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) and Australian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus australis) are often seen here, as well as introduced birds like Blackbirds and Indian Mynahs.
In 2000, the further development of both terrestrial and aquatic collections of indigenous flora began to attract a number of new birds to the Gardens. For example, the Red-rumped parrot (Psephotus haematonotus) now breeds there and commonly feeds on grass seeds at Long Island.
A dedicated group of employees and volunteers observe and provide regular updates on bird sightings in the Gardens.
The Gardens and nearby parklands provide plenty of natural food sources for these wild birds. Please respect their wild nature and help us to keep them healthy by not feeding or handling them.
In spring, you may see turtles moving around on the paths in the Gardens. These are female Common Long-necked Turtles (Chelodina longicollis) and Murray River Turtles (Emydura macquarii) looking for a site to build their nests. Travelling long distances can be risky for the turtles, as they are sometimes injured by vehicles or picked up by people. If you see a turtle in the Gardens, please leave it alone so it can make its own way.
The Flat-headed Gudgeon (Philypnodon grandiceps), a native fish, was found in the Ornamental Lake during a fish survey in July 2009. The Flat-headed Gudgeon grows to 8–12 cm in length and spends most of its time near the bottom of the lake, often among water plants and snags.
Ornamental Lake is home to a healthy population of Short-finned Eels (Anguilla australis), which were in the original lagoon long before the arrival of Europeans. The Short-finned Eel thrives in still, shallow waters and feeds on crustaceans, frogs, insects and worms. It is the most abundant of 32 indigenous fish species in Melbourne’s Yarra River and was an important part of the diet of local Aboriginal people. Eels can grow to 1.3m long and are widespread in near-coastal freshwater streams, swamps, billabongs and dams of Eastern Australia and the South Pacific.
The ability to breathe through their skin allows eels to survive in small pools and bogs during dry periods. It also enables them to move overland during damp conditions, aided by a muscular, mucus-coated body. Such feats explain sudden unexpected appearances – providing rich fodder for folklore.
Drawn towards flowing water, mature eels make their way into coastal estuaries where they commence an epic 4,000km swim to their spawning grounds in the South Coral Sea. The fish stop feeding and undergo physical changes including an increase in eye size and silvering of their underside, relying solely on fat reserves to fuel their journey.
Following hatching, the leaf-shaped larvae are carried southwards on ocean currents, developing into transparent ‘glass eels’ as they approach coastal regions. At one to three years of age, the young eels or elvers begin to migrate up Victorian rivers and streams between March and October.
Extensive frog surveys undertaken during the development of Long Island in 2000-01 identified only the Southern Brown Tree Frog (Litoria ewingii) inhabiting the Gardens. In 2008, two more species – the Eastern Common Froglet (Crinia signifera) and Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peroni) – were found in the Long Island wetland. It is likely that aquatic planting had provided the habitat for more species to make the Gardens their home.
Rakali (Native Water-Rat)
Rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster) is an Australian native rodent that is well adapted for both freshwater and saltwater aquatic environments. Its fur is water repellent and hind feet are partially webbed. It can grow up to 40cm long (excluding its thick, white-tipped tail). Its colour ranges from grey to black with its underside ranging from white to orange. Indeed its scientific name Hydromys chrysogaster means ‘water-mouse with golden belly’ but there is considerable variation in colour. Rakali is mostly carnivorous in its feeding preferences with aquatic insects, crustaceans and fish forming its main food supply. However, it has been known to occasionally take birds, mammals, frogs, reptiles, and also feed on plants.
Most of its hunting occurs in shallow water. Food is usually taken to a favourite feeding place above the water surface and close to the shoreline, such as a log or rock where remnants of food may accumulate.
You may see Rakali foraging for food or swimming near the edge of the Ornamental Lake, especially around dusk. They can also be seen in marine environments like Port Philip Bay, especially where there are rocky breakwaters to provide shelter.
Brush-tailed Possums and Ring-tailed Possums
You can see both Brush-tailed and Ring-tailed Possums at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. Possums can affect the growth of some plants as they feed on their flowers, leaves or fruits. In an effort to minimise this damage, possum guards (sheets of clear plastic) are sometimes wrapped around the trunk or lower branches of trees. This prevents the possums from climbing up the plants to feed and does not harm the tree.
Not many people realise that there is a small population of foxes living in the Gardens. Foxes survive on rubbish, and prey on small mammals or birds in the Gardens. Foxes appear at night so remain generally unsighted by visitors. Foxes are also found in other inner city locations.
Bats are the world’s only flying mammals. Many people are familiar with large bats (Megabats) such as the Grey-headed Flying Fox, which is a common sight in the Melbourne evening sky. Smaller bats (Microbats) also live in Melbourne. We often fail to notice them because they are tiny, nocturnal and their calls cannot be heard by human ears. In 2010–11, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne conducted a survey to better understand the roosting and foraging needs of these cryptic animals. Four species of microbats have been identified during the survey so far:
- Chocolate wattled bat
- Gould’s wattled bat
- Lesser Long-eared bat
- White-striped Freetail bat
Microbats are important insect-eaters and can consume half their body weight in insects each night! The results of this survey will hopefully help us plan for the future conservation of microbats in our cities. As our urban areas expand, it is important that we understand how wildlife adapts to the changes we inflict on them.
In early 2003, more than 28,000 Grey-headed Flying-foxes roosted within Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. The sheer weight of numbers was damaging historically significant and heritage-listed trees and plantings and, in turn, their habitat. In partnership with the Department of Sustainability and Environment and other government agencies, the colony was successfully relocated to Yarra Bend near Kew in the autumn of 2003. The colony can now be viewed roosting at their home at Yarra Bend during the day.
The Atlas of Living Australia records 533 types of insect within 5km of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and there are likely to be many more species awaiting discovery. A concentration of habitat types, food sources and camouflage opportunities within the Gardens supports a great variety and abundance of insects, creating a neighborhood ‘hotspot’ for insect diversity.
Many invertebrates, including insects, rely on safe havens such as botanic gardens for their survival in urban settings. Some insects now rarely seen near the Melbourne CBD are still found here, highlighting the loss of former habitat. The Gardens also provides a harbour for vagrant (wandering) varieties of insects. Both native and introduced insects take advantage of food plants uncommon in other parts of Melbourne.
Insects represent more than half of all Earth’s life forms and are among the most varied and specialised of groups. Mainly feeders on plant material, they are fundamental in the food chains supporting frogs, reptiles, birds, fish and many mammals. The external skeletons and jointed body parts of insects allow them to flourish in the harshest of extremes across an extraordinary range of habitats.
Winged insects are some of the most conspicuous and visually striking. The development of wings has allowed foraging across much wider areas than legs alone would permit. This added mobility buffers them against scarcities in local food supply.
More than a third of Australia’s 400 plus butterfly species are found in Victoria, and many of these are commonly found at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. More than 80 species of butterfly have been recorded in the Melbourne area in addition to several thousand varieties of moth, many as yet unnamed.
Along with bees and some types of wasps, butterflies are important plant pollinators. Like bees and wasps, butterflies also have a four-stage lifecycle. A soft-bodied larva or caterpillar grows through a series of phases until a pupal or resting stage is reached. Finally, a winged adult emerges. Caterpillars often display bold colour patterning, bristles and other warning markers. Many lead cryptic lives within the foliage of their host plants.
Butterflies do not feed on pollen directly. Pollination is a by-product of flower visits as butterflies seek out the sugary liquid nectar that forms their diet.
Some of the most common butterflies seen at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne include the Cabbage and Caper Whites, Common and Shouldered Brown, Yellow Admiral, Meadow Argus and Painted Lady. The beautiful Monarch or Wanderer butterfly is also seen from time to time. The spectacular and aptly named Dainty Swallowtail is a relatively recent addition to Melbourne’s butterfly fauna, and presently thrives within the Gardens.