Wide Open Spaces
In Western Australia, the Great Sandy Desert is an uninhabited wilderness where high red sand dunes extend in parallel rows for hundreds of miles. To the east, the Tanami Desert is a vast area of red sandplains broken up by hills and ranges. Like all Australian deserts, this ecoregion receives limited, sporadic rainfall and is covered in sparse vegetation. Clumps of tough spinifex grasses and scattered small, hardy saltbush shrubs cover the desert. Above this, sparse, spiny acacias and tall desert oaks can be seen.
This immense region stretches across much of the Western Territory and into the Northern Territory. Its most significant feature is Uluru, a large, red sandstone dome that rises 1,148 feet (350 m) above the surrounding plain of small shrubs and trees. It is actually the summit of a buried sandstone hill, formed by the erosion and sedimentation of ancient mountain ranges. This massive natural wonder measures 5 miles (8 km) around the base and figures significantly in Aborigine mythology. Water runoff from Uluru supports plant communities around its base that would not normally be found in such an arid environment.
To live in this hot, arid environment, mammals are often nocturnal, emerging to feed only during cooler night hours. For example, rabbit-like bilbies are delicate, long-eared marsupials that do not venture out from their burrows until well after dark. The tiny mulgara is a mouse-like marsupial that hunts for insects at night. Also living here is the golden, furry marsupial mole that almost never emerges from its burrow. This blind mammal is an adept burrower, coming out only after heavy rains. By day, thorny devils--colorful spiny lizards--search for black ants to eat. Rare Alexandra’s parrots may also be seen flying about in pairs searching for nectar and grass seeds. This elusive bird has a pastel-blue head and a long tail. The brightly colored mulga parrot and scarlet-chested parrot are more easily spotted. The largest remaining population of the endangered rufous hare wallaby lives in the Tanami Desert. This hare-sized marsupial will emerge from its den only at sunset to begin foraging.
Cause for Concern
This area is mostly uninhabited--although some mining, cattle-grazing, and Aboriginal land use does take place. Introduced and feral animals such as cats, foxes, and camels are all serious concerns. Tourist pressures at Uluru and unmanaged fires are also potential threats.
For more information on this ecoregion, go to the World Wildlife Fund Scientific Report.All text by World Wildlife Fund © 2001