The Great Sandy Region has a great diversity of fauna even if its populations are not obvious or readily evident. This region represents an overlap area where several southern species of fauna reach their northern limit, and where several northern species reach their southern limit. As such it is an important habitat because it extends the range of species and helps to extend biological diversity.
Of Australia’s 86 recognized endangered vertebrates, (Burbidge 1984) six occur in the Great Sandy Region. These are the Humpback whale, the False Water Rat, Red Goshawk, Coxen’s Fig Parrot, the Ground Parrot and the Leathery Turtle. Many other vertebrate species which are at risk also occur here.
The mammal fauna of the Great Sandy Region is characterized by low total species richness, very low within habitat diversity and low abundance.
The region has attracted international prominence due to the recognition of the area as a resting pace for the endangered humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Although whales have visited Hervey Bay for many years, numbers had declined significantly until commercial whaling in eastern Australia ceased in 1963.
Whales from the Group V humpback whale stock migrate north through waters adjacent to Cooloola and Fraser Island to their breeding grounds in Great Barrier Reef waters for the winter. They can be seen during these migrations.
Since whaling ceased the Group V humpback whale population has increased from about 500 to about 1200 in 1987.
During the southward migration from the Reef waters a significant proportion of the Group V population has been found to stopover temporarily in Platypus Bay, a section of Hervey Bay, before recommencing their southward migration. These whales enter Hervey Bay about mid August. They appear to remain in Hervey Bay for two months of the year until mid October prior to moving to their Antarctic feeding grounds. The significance of this stopover, during which they do not appear to eat during their sojourn in Hervey Bay is now the subject of extensive research.
During the time they are in Hervey Bay they are viewed by more than 40,000 tourists who make day trips to observe them playing.
The Great Sandy Strait is a significant habitat for Dugong (Dugong dugon), which is recognized as an endangered species. The enormous seagrass beds support a population estimated in August 1988 at 1600 to 2300 with densities of 1.2 per square kilometre in southern Hervey Bay. The large population makes southern Hervey Bay the most significant area for the endangered dugong south of Cape York where it is under heavy hunting pressure.
The region is a significant habitat of a number of uncommon species:
- The False Water Rat (Xeromys myoides) reaches the southern-most extension of its range in the region. This endangered species, which inhabits coastal swamp and mangrove areas, is threatened elsewhere by habitat destruction.
- The Yellow-bellied glider (Petaurus australis) occurs within Cooloola National Park.
Macropods, except for the Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), and the Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) and possums, echidnas, and bandicoots, are poorly represented.
The main components of the mammal fauna are native rodents: Australian Water Rat (Hydromys chrysogaster) Fawn-footed Melomys (Melomys cervinipes), Grassland Melomys (Melomys burtoni), Little Native Mouse (Pseudomys delicatulus), Southern Bush Rat (Rattus fuscipes), Eastern Swamp Rat (Rattus lutreolus), Pale Field Rat (Rattus tunneyi).
Fruit bats of the region are very prolific with these mammals moving between several camps sites from time to time but feeding throughout the region. Bats recorded include: Grey-headed Fruit Bat (Pteropus poliocephalus), Queensland Blossom Bat (Syconycteris australis), Light-bellied Shear-tailed Bat (Taphozous flaviventris) Lesser Long-eared Bat (Nyctophilus geoffroyi).
The Great Sandy Region hosts a significant population of dingoes (Canis familiaris). The population on Fraser Island (estimated to be 200-300) is believed to be the purest strain of dingo remaining in eastern Australia.
Horses were introduced to Fraser Island in the 1870’s and provided a parent stock for the present feral horses (brumbies). Some brumbies also live in western Cooloola.
Birdlife is the most obvious of all of the fauna of the Great Sandy Region. It is one of the two areas of greatest species diversity of birds found in Australia.
More than 230 species of birds have been recorded in the region, far more species than occurs in Great Britain. This prolific bird life is a major attraction for both Australian and overseas visitors. Many of these species are uncommon or rare elsewhere.
The rare and uncommon species include: Turquoise Parrot (Neophema pulchella), Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami), Brush Bronze Pigeon (Phaps elegans), Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua), Grass Owl (Tyto longimbris), Plumed Frogmouth (Podargus ocellatus plumiferus), Red Goshawk, (Acciper radiatus) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).
The Great Sandy Region is the most important remaining habitat for the Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus), a species listed as vulnerable. Fraser Island, Cooloola and the Wide Bay Training area contains the largest and possibly the only viable population of Ground Parrots in Queensland at the northern limit of its range.
The region has an astonishing array of 18 raptors. These include a number which are rare elsewhere such as Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys and the endangered Red Goshawk.
Cooloola National Park is the only recorded locality of a northern isolate of the Southern Emu Wren (Stipiturus malachurus). A relict population occurs on the Noosa Plain. It is found nowhere else in Queensland. It also has an isolated population of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella).
The region’s estuaries are recognised as one of the three most important summer stopovers for migratory-trans-equatorial wading birds in Australia. The most notable of these in significance of habitat are curlews, Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey-tailed Tattlers
The intertidal mudflats of Great Sandy Strait are used by both migratory waders and a number of shorebirds which includes Cormorants, Egrets, Herons, Ibises, Spoonbills and Jabirus.
It also represents a significant flyway for migratory trans-equatorial waders which over-winter and breed in northern Asia and Alaska. Huge populations of waders’ rest for some days in Great Sandy Strait during the migrations.
Mudflats associated with seagrass appear to attract the greatest density of waders.
Great Sandy Strait also represents a very significant habitat for resident populations of waders remaining during summer. Many immature birds also remain for much longer periods.
Twenty-four wading species use the area for feeding and roosting. Eighteen of these are listed in international agreements with Japan and China.
Because of the international significance of migratory waders and evidence of Great Sandy Strait’s pre-eminence as a wader habitat, a continuing wader research project into their distribution and abundance is being conducted. This is part of Australia’s contribution to a co-operative project which includes Japan, China, Alaska, South Korea and New Zealand.
Approximately one third of the waders observed during summer counts are Bar-Tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) and another third are Grey-Tailed Tattlers (Tringa brevipes). There are substantial numbers of Eastern Curlews (Numenius madagascariensis), Whimbrels (N phaeopus), Mongolian Plovers (Charadrius mongolus), and Red Necked Stints (Calidris rufficollis).
Great Sandy Strait is the most important of thirteen areas for the Eastern Curlews, containing14.3% of the known Australian population. Only a handful of sites on the eastern seaboard hold a majority of the population.
The region is also amongst the three most important sites for Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) and Mongolian Plovers (Charadrius mongolus).
There are 20 high tide roosts in Great Sandy Strait with major sites holding over 1500 wading birds. It has been estimated that at least 36,000 waders use Great Sandy Strait throughout the summer.
Reptilia and Amphibia
Twenty-three amphibians and forty-six terrestrial reptiles have been recorded in the Great Sandy Region.
The Great Sandy Region provides most of the world habitat to acid frogs which can survive in very acidic environments. Acid frogs occur elsewhere in the world but only in isolated patches along the east coast of Australia including Moreton Island and Stradbroke Island. They are only rare examples elsewhere in the world.
The lakes and swamps provide a suitable habitat for rare varieties of “Acid Frogs” including the Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti), Cooloola Tree Frog (L. cooloolensis), White Striped Tree Frog (L. olongburensis), and Wallum Froglet (Ranidella tinnula). There are nine other non-acid frogs.
One previously undescribed species of blind snake (Ramphotyphlops sp.) is restricted to the heathlands of Cooloola. The Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) reaches its northern limit in the region.
The Three Toed Reduced Limb Skink (Anomalopus cf. ophioscincus) is a new species, recently discovered, which is believed to be endemic to the vine forests of the region.
Hervey Bay and Great Sandy Strait are important feeding grounds for a many sea turtles. An aerial survey in August 1988, estimated a total population of sea turtles in Hervey Bay in the range of 1300 to 1900 with the highest density in Great Sandy Strait. This winter count indicates the resident population which swells substantially during the summer breeding and courtship season.
The Hervey Bay area is of exceptional importance for loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta). Loggerhead turtles, endangered worldwide, are under least threat in the south west Pacific. The largest loggerhead population from the south west Pacific area undertakes virtually all of the known courtship and mating of this population in Hervey Bay, in the vicinity of Rooney’s Point and Platypus Bay. Although the majority of this population nest on southern Great Barrier Reef islands, particularly in the Capricorn Group, they appear to be dependent on the habitat of Hervey Bay for a critical part of the reproduction cycle.
The proposed World Heritage area encompasses the principal mainland rookery of this species at the Mon Repos Environmental Park which stretches along the northernmost beach in the proposed region.
The Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) reaches the southern-most extent of its natural range in the Great Sandy Region. The great mangrove complex at the mouths of the Mary and Susan Rivers provide a habitat for this reptile as well as a number of fish and crabs. Most of this area is now protected by a Fish Habitat Reserve.
The lakes of the Great Sandy Region have a paucity of life due to their low nutrient status. They are unable to maintain large aggregations of waterfowl typical of more productive water bodies on the mainland. Many fish have been unable to invade the lakes because they have never been connected to the ocean.
There are no fish unique to the dune lakes, but the southern sunfish (Rhadinocentrus ornatus) is largely confined to, and is most abundant in the dystrophic waters of mainland and insular wallum country. Creeks and lakes on Fraser Island and Cooloola support strikingly different red and blue morphs of this species, possibly influenced by the different pH levels, water transparency and presence/absence of predacious fish.
Lake Wabby and some creeks support the rare honey blue-eye, (Psuedomugil mellis) which has a restricted distribution in southern Queensland, extending only 300 kilometres north of Brisbane. It is considered officially “vulnerable”. The Commonwealth Government has allocated a research grant under the Endangered Species Program to develop management measures for this potentially at risk species.
The upper Noosa River, and some freshwater streams of Fraser Island provide significant habitats for Australian Bass (Percalates colonorum), a species whose distribution and abundance have been considerably reduced elsewhere since European settlement.
The two major river systems adjacent to the Great Sandy Region and draining into Hervey Bay contained the world’s only natural population of Lungfish, (Neoceratodus forsteri), prior to its wider propagation into other Queensland river systems during the 1890s.
The waters adjacent to Fraser Island, Rainbow and Teewah Beaches and in the Noosa River are popular with amateur anglers. In particular, the ocean beach of Fraser Island attracts large numbers of enthusiasts suitably equipped with beach transport. With the exception of the upper Noosa River the same waters support a number of commercial fishing operations. The bulk of the commercial catch is finned fish consisting of mullet, whiting, tailor, bream, mackerel, and flathead, but mud crabs and prawns are also taken, mainly in estuarine and inshore areas.
The region is most significant for the recreational fish Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix), for two reasons. This popular recreation fish, which is widely distributed in coastal waters of most temperate regions of the world, derived its name from the Anglicization of its Butchalla name, “Dhailli”. However, the region is also significant because the most important spawning ground occurs at the northern end of its range, off Fraser Island.
Many species of fish and sharks have been recorded from Hervey Bay. Barramundi (Lates cacarifer) and Threadfin Salmon (Poydactylus sheridani) reach their southernmost range in the region as do Banana Prawns (Penaeus mergeuensis) while King Prawns (P. plebejus) and Sand Whiting (Sillago ciliata) reach their northern-most limit in this region.
Mackerel caught in the Great Sandy Region have an exceptionally high incidence of poisonous ciguatera toxins in their bodies. The source of the ciguatera has been traced to the vicinity of Wathumba Creek on Fraser Island and Platypus Bay. By coincidence this is approximately the area where most Humpback whales congregate during their southward migration. This is a natural phenomenon which is still being studied.
The invertebrate fauna of the perched dune lakes is low in both diversity and numbers, when compared with other freshwater lakes, but is of great scientific interest.
The dune lakes have a highly unusual fauna. Their distinctive hydrology and water chemistry is only tolerated by certain specialized animals and some widespread, tolerant species. Although the dune lakes are depauperate in vertebrate fauna compared to other types of mainland lake, they support species which are unique to the lakes and others which achieve prominence only in such lakes.
Unique species include the major planktonic crustacean in dune lakes (the copepod Calamoecia tasmanica) several Cladocera, a primitive freshwater sponge, at least one species of aquatic worm, a water mite, two Odonata, five caddis flies (Tricoptera) and several non-biting midges (Chironomidae). Species with such restricted distributions and habitat requirements may serve as very sensitive biological indicators of disturbance and pollution of dune wetlands.
Lake Boomanjin and Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island support a primitive chironomid midge named Anaphrotenia lacustris, with relatives in Australia, South Africa and southern Chile. Another distinctive and related midge species occurs only in Lake Wabby (Paralauter borniella). Studies of the affinities of these insects has enhanced knowledge of southern Gondwanan biogeography.
The absence or rarity of groups which are usually common in freshwater lakes (planarians, ostracods, planktonic cladocera, amphipods and molluscs) also distinguishes the dune lakes as unusual and a distinct class.
Earthworms and ants play a significant role in the ecosystems of the dunes. Sandmasses of south-east Queensland harbour a rich endemic earthworm fauna. The presence of earthworms in sand podzols is in itself a most unusual phenomenon, possibly unique. Many of the species found at Cooloola appear to be the product of localized evolution and are characterized by very limited distributions and small population sizes. As such they may be endangered even by small scale human interference.
Some 20 species of earthworm have recently been recorded from the Cooloola sandmass, all but one of which are new to science. Of over five genera, one genus, (Pheretimoides) is endemic to the sandmasses of south-east Queensland. One of the more spectacular species, the deep-burrowing earthworm (Digaster keastii), attains a length of more than 80 cm, and is widespread in the coastal sandmasses and adjacent inland. Other earthworm taxa parallel the acid frog fauna in being adapted to the low pH levels on localized peaty habitats occurring in the sandmasses.
It is believed that the Cooloola region may contain the greatest diversity (and number of) ant species so far recorded in a given area. Cooloola contains in excess of 300 ant species belonging to about 55 genera. There are also 20 species of termites, two of which appear to be new to science, also 57 species of Collembola (Springtails), 5 of which have apparently never been recorded previously.
The region contains a cricket-like creature not known to science before 1980. It is called Cooloola propator and has been placed in a new scientific family – Cooloolidae.
A giant subterranean cockroach (Geoscapheus crenulatus) approximately 6-8 cm, the second largest cockroach yet recorded in the world, is found in the sand dunes of the Great Sandy Region. The population on Fraser Island is a distinct sub-species not found elsewhere.
Other active members of the dune communities, which have not been studied in detail, include burrowing bees, snails, and in certain places, freshwater crayfish.
Of the most interesting invertebrates found in the region, peripatus, is of exciting because it is part of the unique Gondwana fauna which forms a ‘missing link’ in the evolutionary chain. These are a link between soft bodied segmented worms and many legged crawling forms which later became centipedes, millipedes and insects. The carnivorous peripatus was first recorded in Australia at Cooran, adjacent to the Great Sandy Region. More than 80 species have since been recorded from throughout Australia including rotting damp vegetation in the Great Sandy Region.
The sheltered waters of the Hervey Bay support several species of marine turtles and mammals including dolphins, and dugong. These are discussed elsewhere. The estuaries and shallow bays of the Great Sandy Strait, Tin Can Bay and the Noosa River support a rich and varied fauna.
The brackish water environment, the shallow flats, sea-grass and mangrove-lined shores provide habitat areas for marine life, particularly juvenile fish and crustacea. The productivity of mangrove and adjacent marine grass flats in terms of organic food production has been shown to be equal to, or greater than, that of the best farmlands. These areas produce a great part of the food on which the fishes and crustaceans of the estuary depend.
There are a number of coral reefs within Hervey Bay. The most significant is to be found off the Woongarra Coast near the Mon Repos turtle rookery. Other reefs occur between Moon Point and the Fairway Buoy and near Round Island near the northern end of Great Sandy Strait.
The reefs off the Woongarra Coast are the southern limit of the Great Barrier Reef inshore fringing coral reef sub-tidal communities. These reefs include up to 72 percent live hard corals covering at least 16 species. However, sometimes within a distance of only 10 metres equally dense stands of soft corals, dominated by 6 species occur. The Woongarra reefs occur in a narrow band, usually less than 100 metres from the low water mark and attached to basalt boulders.
Permanently submerged coral reefs also occur off shore from Sandy Cape and Waddy Point on the continental shelf.
Eight of the 22 Australian species of sea snake have been recorded in Hervey Bay, of which four species breed annually. The placid olive sea snake can be seen almost daily by snorkelers here.
Rare colonies of vermetidae gastropods (sedentary marine snails) have been discovered at Rooney’s Point. The gastropod colonies which could be more than 100 years old, are a series of brown domes lying in a shallow sand depression. Although large reef conglomerations of these creatures are common in other parts of the world, they are unusual in Australia. Normally they are found only in intertidal areas. The remote, rarely visited sub-tidal reef in the Great Sandy Region lies in about 30 metres of water north-west of Rooney Point. This occurrence in such deep water is considered exceptional. They are affected by strong tidal currents.
A very large artificial reef has been constructed by volunteers using scuttled ships, car bodies and car tyres, just north of Woody Island to provide a much greater habitat in the form of shelter for reef fish. This resulted in a multiplication of the number of fish species and population in its vicinity.
There are two major classes of molluscs represented in the area: gastropods, (marine snails and slugs) and bivalves.
Shell bearing gastropods comprise fifty species from 21 families. In addition, although information is incomplete, there are 26 species of bivalves from at least 15 families.