‘Fauna’, ‘Animal’ or ‘Mammal’ Emblems of Australia?

Oct 20, 2020

Floral, fauna, bird, mammal, fish, fossil… The states and territories of Australia have each selected emblems in these various categories. Why did they do this? Why were the symbols they selected, chosen? And what’s the difference between the terms fauna, animal, and mammal?

Researching these emblems and symbols can be an excellent way to consider aspects of history and geography. But it is also fascinating to look at the science inherent in these investigations - the biology: the plants and animals. It can be misleading sometimes when ‘fauna’ emblems are separate from ‘bird’ emblems as if birds are not animals… So I thought I’d explore and try to clarify the anomaly that seems to have developed specifically with the animal emblems.

Animals can be classified into two main groups: those with backbones (vertebrates) and those without (invertebrates). Invertebrates are animals like insects, spiders, and worms - not the focus here. Vertebrates have a backbone and include mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians. Within the mammal group, there are marsupials, monotremes, and placental animals. Then the term ‘fauna’ refers to animals in a particular place - which really, therefore, includes birds and fish too... Confusing?

Animals have been selected as Fauna Emblems often because they are predominantly found in this area and tend to be a threatened or endangered species; or because, as a symbol, they can be used to attract tourists. This ABC website has a link to a report on how some of these emblem species are on the decline, especially with our recent devastating bushfires. If you are working with students, this short audio clip mentions how some states and territories are endeavouring to combat this decline - interesting issues for discussion. How is it suggested that Australia follow approaches used in America…?

There can be some uncertainty around the terminology for the Australian fauna emblems. This became apparent in more recent years. The ACT (Australian Capital Territory) has a bird as their fauna emblem yet other states have a mammal AND a bird emblem. So the ACT now has a ‘mammal’ emblem (since 2018) and a ‘fauna’ emblem which is a bird!

Let’s look at the emblems for each state and territory.

South Australia (SA)
Floral Sturt's Desert Pea
Fauna Hairy-nosed Wombat
Bird Piping Shrike
Fish Leafy Seadragon

New South Wales (NSW)
Floral Waratah
Fauna Platypus
Bird Kookaburra
Fish Eastern Blue Groper

Victoria (Vic)
Floral Common Pink Heath
Fauna Leadbeater's Possum
Bird Helmeted Honeyeater
Fish Weedy Seadragon

Queensland (Qld)
Floral Cooktown Orchid
Fauna Koala
Bird Brolga
Fish Barrier Reef Anemonefish

Western Australia (WA)
Floral Red and Green Kangaroo Paw
Fauna Numbat
Bird Black Swan
Fish Whale Shark

Tasmania (Tas)
Floral Tasmanian Blue Gum
Fauna Tasmanian Devil
Bird Yellow Wattlebird

Northern Territory (NT)
Floral Sturt's Desert Rose
Fauna Red Kangaroo
Bird Wedge-tailed Eagle

Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
Floral Royal Bluebell
Mammal Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby
Fauna Gang-gang Cockatoo

For all except ACT, the FAUNA emblem is a mammal. Sometimes the fauna emblem has been referred to as the mammal emblem. Mammals give birth to live young which are nurtured by their mother’s milk until they can feed themselves. Mammals can be one of three types: marsupial, monotreme or placental.

Amongst these mammal emblems, only the platypus is not marsupial. Female marsupials have a pouch where underdeveloped young stay attached to the teat as they mature. However, one marsupial in the group is slightly unique. The numbat has no pouch but thick hair around the teats protecting these tiny infants as they continue to grow while suckling.

Although the platypus is a mammal (all mammals have babies feeding on milk produced by their mother), it is more specifically a monotreme (which means it lays eggs). There are only two species of monotreme mammals: the platypus and the echidna - both native to Australia.

The last group of mammals, and by far the largest, is placental where babies stay within the womb and are fed by the placenta for a much longer period of time, eventually being born more developed but still feeding from their mother’s milk. Humans, dogs, cats… All placental mammals. There are no fauna emblems represented by these types of mammals!

So... the FAUNA emblems could be better labelled 'mammal' emblems which then allows for the separation of the bird and fish emblems. I guess the reasoning was that by using the term 'fauna', they could refer to animals which were more localised. This doesn't account for those emblems of animals which can be found across many parts of Australia - where tourism was the key purpose for the selection. Perhaps 'fauna' just then means 'native' to Australia.

Artventure is gradually developing lessons to feature as many of these state and territory emblems as possible. You can search for floral and fauna emblems or ‘bird’ or ‘mammal’ or keywords for specific animals or plants you know of. Still possible are fish emblems and there are even fossil emblems! What’s that about? Curious…

For the moment, a focus on why we have emblems (and why these ones in particular) is a good basis for a transdisciplinary inquiry whether teaching in the classroom or home schooling. Building these ideas even further could involve a comparison of our Australian symbols with those that other countries use.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger