Plants and animals
Flora and fauna are an important part of Tjukurpa. Many plants and animals are associated with ancestral beings, reinforcing traditional links with country and Tjukurpa.
Plants are an important part of Tjukurpa, and there are ceremonies for each of the major plant foods. Many plants are associated with ancestral beings. Collection of plant foods remains a culturally important activity, reinforcing traditional links with country and Tjukurpa.
Though a desert environment, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to a surprising number of plants, birds and animals. When Anangu look at the landscape they pay close attention to its landforms, soils, plants, animals, water supply and fire history. They know how to use plants, can read animal tracks and understand the significance of weather changes. Their knowledge comes from the Tjukurpa along with the responsibility to care for the land and its wildlife.
Wanari (mulga - Acacia aneura)
Probably Australia's most common tree. It covers huge semi-arid and arid areas. What look like leaves are actually flattened leaf-stems (called phyllodes). Fire usually kills mulga so it has developed a survival strategy dependant on fire. The seeds need heat to crack and germinate, which is why the trees occurring in each stand are generally the same age.
Each part of the tree has an important traditional use. The heavy, hard wood is the main source of firewood. From the bigger branches and trunks miru (spearthrower), mukulpa (barbs), wata (spearhead), kali (boomerang) and wana (digging stick) are made. Both wiltja (shelter) and yuu (windbreak) are constructed from the leafy branches. The tree is also a valuable source of food, providing seeds, shelter for malu (red plains kangaroo), nyii-nyii (zebra finch) nests, tarulka (mulga apples) and insect galls, kurku (clear sweet lumps) and ngantja (mistletoe fruit).
Kurkara (desert oak - Allocasuarina decaisneana)
Slow growing and grow in deep sand in large numbers. Juveniles look like Christmas trees and mature to an adult form spreading massive limbs when the roots meet the water table. It is the only member of its family in Central Australia and its cones are the biggest in its family. Fire burns its foliage but usually does not kill the tree.
Kanturangu (desert poplar - Codonocarpus cotinifolius)
Fast growing short-lived tree, belonging to the same Australian family as the sandhill corkwood. It sometimes sets so much seed that its crown bends over with the weight. It often lines roadsides but can also grow in sand, on mulga flats and even on rocky hillsides. Anangu collect its leaves as a cooling cover for babies in hot weather. They also collect maku (witchetty grubs) from the roots.
Muur-muurpa (desert bloodwood Corymbia terminalis)
One of the parks most prominent eucalypts in the park. This tall tree has a distinctive thick, rough bark that helps protect it from fire. The English name comes from the dark red sap that accumulates on wounds on the trunk. In harsh times, the tree can drop branches reducing the energy needed to survive. The wood from the trunk of muur-muurpa is strong and good for making piti (bowls). Anangu cut the trunk a special way so the tree does not die. Muur-muurpa is good bush medicine. We peel the red sap off the tree, grind it and mix it with kapi (water). This ointment is good for cuts and sores.
Itara (river red gum - Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
Another prominent eucalypt found in the park. Anangu collect a white flaky crust from river red gum leaves, roll it into balls and eat it like a lolly.
Altarpa (blue mallee - Eucalyptus gamophylla)
This eucalypt is very common throughout the park.
Grevilleas and hakeas (corkwood trees) flower in the spring and winter. They have big bottlebrush heads. Anangu collect nectar from the flowers, they do not pick them for nectar. They suck it directly from the flowers or soak them in water for a sweet drink.
Kaliny-kalinypa (honey grevillea - Grevillea eriostachya)
This shrub’s flowers are bright yellow and green.
Ilykuwara (witchetty bush - Acacia kempeana)
This shrub looks like a shrubby mulga with broad round-ended leaves. Anangu women use their digging stick to dig up the roots to extract maku (witchetty grub), larvae of a large moth that feeds in the roots.
Mintjingka (native fuchsia - Eremophila latrobei)
After rain it is easy to see when it is covered with bright red bell flowers. Anangu collect these and suck the sweet nectar.
Pukara (thryptomene, Thryptomene maisonneuvei) is a small woody shrub which forms dense stands on the slopes of sand dunes. Pukara have small compact leaves with no stems, and produce small white and pink flowers which bloom in winter. On winter mornings Anangu women would beat the bushes with a wooden bowl to collect the morning dew which contained sweet nectar from the flowers.
Tjulpun-tjulpunpa (flowers and fruits)
Anangu call all the pretty ground flowers tjulpun-tjulpunpa. Daisies and other ground flowers bloom after rain and during the winter. Others such as the wattles bloom as spring approaches. Anangu collect wattle seed, crush and mix it with water to make an edible paste which they eat raw. To make damper, the seeds are parched with hot sand so their skins can be removed before they are ground for flour.
Purar-purarpa (white foxtail - Ptilotis obovatus)
This plant belongs to a group of hair flowers we call pussytails.
Alputati (showy foxtail - Ptilotis exaltatus)
Also part of the pussytail group, has a spectacular display of pink flowers.
Pukara (desert heath-myrtle - Thryptomene maisonneuvei)
In early June you might see this plant flowering near the Uluru sunset viewing area and the Resort. It is a small shrub with scale leaves and tiny pink and white flowers.
Paltu-paltupa (parrot-pea - Crotalaria cunninghamii)
Found on the sandhill crests in midwinter, it has very obvious big green flowers with dark stripes. Anangu mash the leaves and use them as a poultice on snake bite.
Wakati (pigweed, Portulaca oleracea) is a small prostrate succulent with oval-shaped red-green fleshy leaves and small yellow flowers. Anangu harvest the small black seeds to grind into flour, and dig up the the large tap root which can be baked and eaten.
There are over 50 species of native grass in the park. All have adapted to the boom or bust conditions of the red centre. Grasses tolerate this harsh environment by needing little water, having resistance to frost and strategies to cope with fire. When it rains grasses respond with an abundance of seed. Anangu women collect grass seed such as wangunu (naked woollybutt grass) to make nyuma (flat bread). We run our hands along the seed heads and scoop them into a piti (large bowl). We clean the seed, grind it and mix it with kapi (water). We sometimes add tjala (honey ant) to make it sweet for children then cook it like damper in the coals.
Tjanpi (hard spinifex - Triodia basedowii, soft spinifex - Triodia pungens)
These prickly hummocks have enormous root systems that prevent desert sands shifting. The hummock roots spread underground beyond the prickly clump and deeply into the soil, forming an immense cone. Anangu know that tjanpi likes to burn fast. You have to watch it. You have to know your country, know how to manage it. Old people tell the story, the Tjukurpa for tjanpi. They teach us that the old dry centre of tjanpi is what you burn.
Anangu gather the resin of soft spinifexes to make kiti (gum). Anangu thresh the spinifex until the resin particles fall free, then heat them until they fuse together to form a moldable black tar. This kiti is used for hunting and working implements, and to mend breaks in stone and wooden implements.
Wangunu (naked woolybutt - Eragrostis eriopoda)
An important food source for Anangu.
Kunakanti (armgrass millet - Paractaenum [Plagiosetum] refractum)
The seeds are also used for food.
Kaltu - kaltu (native millet - Panicum decompositum)
Another food source for Anangu.
There are several regionally significant rare plant species that occur in the park. These include one threatened species, species with restricted distributions, and several relictual species (species that persist only in isolated patches of suitable habitat). Mangata (desert quandong, Santalum acuminatum) is a threatened species which is listed as vulnerable in the Northern Territory.
Mangata are a favourite food of camels, and so while mangata are common in other parts of Australia, the large number of camels in the Northern Territory have significantly reduced populations in this state. Mangata were an important food source for Anangu, who ate the vitamin-rich fruit straight off the tree. Anangu also used the oily kernels to condition and strengthen their hair, which was then used to weave belts.
Relictual species are remnants of broader populations which existed in the past when the climate was much different. The relictual species that occur in the park are associated with the relatively wet areas around the bigger waterholes such as Kantju Gorge and Mutitjulu Waterhole. Relictual species include puta-puta (a rush, Juncus continuus), a lobelia (Lobelia gibbosa var. gibbosa), and a carnivorous sundew (Drosera indica).
The desert environment of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park supports a surprising variety of animals. You are most likely to see birds and reptiles while in the park, but at sunrise or sunset you might be lucky and spot one of our more unusual mammals.
Animals play an important role in Anangu Tjukurpa. One of the main ancestors, the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) people, travelled to Uluru from the north and subsequently fled to the south and southeast (towards South Australia) to escape from kurpany, an evil dog like creature that had been specifically created and sent from Kikingkura (near the Western Australia border).
Under Tjukurpa the actions of ancestral beings such as the mala and itjaritjari (marsupial mole) have important roles in forming the physical features of Uluru. Anangu continue
to hunt and gather animal species in remote areas of the park and the main mammal hunted is malu (red kangaroo, Macropus rufus).
Nganana warkaripai wirura tjungu Ranger panya tjungu munu pampa tjilpi ankula antjaki ngaripai ini tjuta wangkapai ukiri kuwaritjangka munu mitura tjina ankunyangka. Tjakura ankupai, tinka ankupai murtja ankupai liru Tjuta alatji-la wangkapai. Tjukurpa irititja nganana wangkapai tjinala nyakula nintiringkupai malatja malatja tjitji tjukarurungku Park-angka atunymankunytjaku panya alatji alatji. Tjungungku warka wiru atunymankunytjaku kuka tjuta drum pitingka tjunkula wanara tjarpapai katira ini walkatjura walatjunkupai munu ankupai ngurakutu.
© Imantura Richards
We work well together. The senior Anangu women and men go out and camp together with the rangers and identify all the plants present and the animals by picking up the tracks made by them as they have moved around. We talk about the Great Desert Skink activity, the sand goanna activity, the mulgara activity and all the snakes based on this tracking. We talk about the traditional knowledge associated with the animals and we continue to learn about the tracks so that our children and future generations are able to look after the park properly, doing work like this. We do good work together to look after the animals including fauna surveys where lines of drums are placed in the ground and the animals that go into them are taken and recorded. They are then released and go home.
Mala (Largochestes hirsutus)
This small wallaby was once one of the most abundant and widespread macropods in the Northern Territory. Males weigh on average 1200 grams and females 1300 grams and they live mainly in patches of spinifex, which is used primarily for shelter. Mala use adjacent areas for feeding and are herbivorous. They prefer seeds and fruits when available and leaf and stem material from grasses are a major food source. When food is scarce they will eat spinifex. Mala need a mosaic of vegetation structure and diversity and small scale patchy fire is clearly important in creating this habitat.
Sadly today the mala is all but extinct in the wild in the Northern Territory. In 2005 we started a program to reintroduce the animal to our park, building a fenced-off enclosure of 170 hectares. We released 25 mala into this area, obtained from nearby Watarrka National Park. They have bred successfully, and we estimate there are now 220 mala living in this enclosure.
Itjaritjari (Notoryctes typhlops)
Itjaritjari (marsupial mole) is small with a head and body length of 121-159 millimetres and tail length of 21-26 millimetres and weighs 40-70 grams. This species is highly secretive and little is known about them and as such is listed as threatened. It is generally found in sand dunes, inter-dunal flats and in sandy soils along river flats and spends most of its time undergound. These animals are rarely seen and are more inclined to surface after periods of rain. The females have a backwards facing pouch, like the koala and wombat. Their diet consists of ant pupae, beetles, beetle larvae and cossid moth larvae.
Minyma Itjaritjari is an ancestral being that lived in a cave in the side of Uluru in the same valley as the Mala people. She was friendly with the Mala women and would often come out of her cave to watch the children play.
Murtja (Dasycercus blythi)
Murtja (mulgara) is listed as vulnerable Australia wide. Head and body length is 125-220 millimetres (males) and 125-170 millimetres (females) and tail length is 75-125 millimetres (males) and 75-100 millimetres (females). The murtja is small weighing between 75-170 grams (males) and 60-95 grams (females) and inhabits the arid sandy regions of Australia. They live in burrows, which they dig on sand plains and the burrow generally has one main entrance with two to three side tunnels and pop holes.
The most striking feature of these small yet robust animals is the crest of black hairs on the tail, which is short and fattened at the base. They hunt at night, mainly for insects, arthropods and small invertebrates but are not strictly nocturnal. The park currently has a management program for this species, which involves an annual survey using targeted trapping and a patch burning program to create ideal habitat.
Tarkawara (Notomys alexis)
Tarkawara (spinifex hopping mouse) are common and live throughout most of the arid zone of Australia preferring spinifex covered sandflats and stabilised sand dunes. They have a head and body length of 95-112 millimetres and tail length of 131-150 millimetres and weigh between 27-45 grams. Populations vary greatly according to levels of rainfall and population explosions were recorded in 1974-75 and 1988-89 after heavy rains.
Individuals avoid the desert heat by sheltering in deep, humid burrows lined with small twigs, leaves and other plant material. Like many animals in the desert they only come out at night and their diet consists of a variety of seeds, roots, shoots and invertebrates.
Malu (Macropus rufus)
Malu (red kangaroo) is found mainly in the better-watered plains country and low open woodlands, but subsists sparsely in the desert. The males are 1645-2400 millimetres in size and females are 1390-2000 millimetres and weigh between 22-85 kilograms (males) and 17-35 kilograms (females).
When conditions are favourable malu females can nurture three young at one time, one joey at foot, one in the pouch and one waiting to be born.
Patupiri (Chalinolobus gouldii)
Patupiri (Gould's wattled bat) are a common species widespread throughout Australia and inhabit open forest, mallee, dense forest, tall shrubland and urban areas. The head and body length is between 65-75 millimetres and tail length is 40-50 millimetres and they weigh between 10-18 grams. These bats roost in trees, bird nests, ceilings and have even been found in the roof of the Cultural Centre.
They emit different noises according to their activity such as high pitched chirps when flying low and chittering noises when roosting. Owls, cats and birds including the butcherbird, prey on them.
Papa (Canus lupus dingo)
The papa (dingo) plays a special role in maintaining the balance in the ecosystem. A dingo has a relatively broad head, a pointed muzzle, and erect ears. The fur colour is mostly sandy to reddish brown but can occasionally be black, light brown and even white.
They eat a wide variety of animals such as rabbits, rats, marsupial mice, kangaroos and wallabies. Dingoes are more active at night, sunrise and sunset than in the middle of the day and can been seen in small groups or often alone. In general dingoes are very shy towards humans but can be curious and watch from a distance.
The papa is a wild animal. Please do not try to touch or feed dingos in the park.
There are 21 mammals in the park listed as vulnerable of threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. These include the murtja (mulgara, Dasycercus cristicauda), itjaritjari (marsupial mole, Notoryctes typhlops), and mala (rufous hare-wallaby, Largochestes hirsutus).
The app contains all the information below plus a whole lot more - take your iPhone to Uluru next time you visit and you will have a handy field guide for Uluru's birdlife.
You will see more birds than any other type of animal in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. 178 species of bird have been recorded in the park including several rare species such as the scarlet-chested parrot, the striated grasswren and the grey honeyeater. Their songs and colours are part of the arid landscape.
Survival in arid regions
Water dictates the survival of birds in the arid region. Many are either nomadic or migratory, and after periods of good rain will move into the park in great numbers. The need to drink usually keeps birds within flying distance of water. Insect eaters, the largest group, and carnivorous species supplement their water intake through moisture from food. To reduce water loss birds lose little moisture in their droppings, passing crystals with their faeces. In high temperatures small birds lose water rapidly through evaporation and most of it is lost from panting, not sweating, as birds have no sweat glands.
While some birds range over all habitats, others live in only one. Look for birds and listen carefully. Anangu identify and name birds by their calls, this way of naming birds is called mnemonic (memory device). Spend a little time saying the names and listening to the birds, and you will soon discover how practical this system is. Often Anangu call similar sounding species by the same general name.
Where to find birds
Puli - rocky areas
Birds soar around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, or live among the plants growing at their bases. You will probably see at least one species of hawk. Species to look for include kirkinpa (brown falcon, Australian kestrel, peregrine falcon, Australian hobby, black-breasted kite), aralapalpalpa (crested pigeon), warutjilyarpa (black-faced cuckoo-shrike, grey-headed honeyeater), pititjaku-pititjaku (pied butcherbird), patupiri (fairy martin) and tjalpu-tjalpu (black-faced woodswallow). Kirkinpa, Australian kestrels hover or perch as they search for prey on the ground. Falcons soar higher and prey on birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects, killing by severing the neck with one powerful bite. Patupiri build bottle-shaped mud nests in the caves but you are more likely to see them in flight displaying their white rumps. Tjalpu-tjalpu glide for insects high on the cliff faces.
Tjanpi - spinifex
Tjanpi forms a very prickly, fine-needled hummock and spinifex plains is a common habitat within the park. There are two uncommon bird species to look for in tjanpi, the painted firetail and mirilyirilyi (dusky grass wren). Mirilyirilyi are one of the larger wrens and bounce over boulders with their tails cocked. When disturbed they dash away, running with their tails lowered. They are very shy but are known to appear momentarily, calling, singing and running about the rocks.
Puti - woodlands and shrublands
This habitat is common along most major roads in the park and consists of grevilleas, hakeas and desert oaks, all of which offer food and shelter for the following species patilpa (Port Lincoln ringneck), tjalpu-tjalpu, tjintir-tjintirpa (willy wagtail) piyar-piyarpa (galah), pititjaku-pititjaku (pied butcherbird), kurparu (Australian magpie), kalaya (emu), kaanka (little and Torresian crows) and kirkinpa (brown goshawk). Patilpa are often seen in desert oaks feeding on seeds. Pairs or flocks of tjalpu-tjalpu search on the wing for insects or perch waiting for insects to pass. You will see many in trees beside the road. Although they feed mainly on insects, you may see them taking nectar and pollen. They have divided tongues which enable them reach into the centre of flowers.
Puti wanari - mulga
Mulga is a common tree in the park and grows in stands. There are good stands around Uluru and next to the road to Kata Tjuta and you may find mirilyirilyi, mininy-mininypa (chestnut-rumped thornbill), tjintu-tjintu (inland thornbill), titirara (spiny-cheeked honeyeater), tjintir-tjintirpa, tjalpu-tjalpu, watu-watu (grey shrike-thrush), tjuun-tjuunpa (white-browed babbler) and warutjilyarpa. Tjukurpa tells how tjintir-tjintirpa hears faint sounds of singing coming from the northeast. Happily she realises that the ceremonies of the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) people have started. As an expression of her pleasure, she smiles and forms ikari, a cave near Mutitjulu Waterhole at the base of Uluru. The Tjukurpa associated with nyii-nyii (zebra finch) tells of the travels of these bird ancestors and there is an inma (ceremony) for nyii-nyii which is an important part of ceremonial life.
Tali and pila - open grasslands and dune areas
Tali and pila are the two most widespread habitats and they are also the first areas to show the effect of drought. The dunes are particularly fragile so please always stay on marked tracks. You might see miititi (crimson chat), mirilyirilyi, kakalyalya (pink cockatoo), pirunkura (singing honeyeater), kirkinpa, and tjalpu-tjalpu. You may even be lucky enough to see the kiilykiilykari (budgerigar) here in it's natural habitat. The luunpa (red backed kingfisher) is a dry country kingfisher, and searches for grasshoppers and small reptiles.
The brilliant red rumps of miititi (crimson chats) are hard to miss. These insect eaters have virtually eliminated the need to drink and are amongst the most nomadic Australian birds which are known to cross deserts.
Karu - Creek beds and gullies
This Karu habitat is limited in the park. There are examples at the Valley of the Winds circuit walk and Walpa (Olga) Gorge. Birds occurring there include kiilykiilykari (budgerigar), nyii-nyii (zebra finch) and aralapalala (crested pigeon) which is also seen extensively elsewhere in the park including the Cultural Centre.
Most of these birds are seed eaters and must drink at least once a day. The presence and numbers of these birds depends on seed availability which in turn depends on rainfall. If water is readily available finches drink as often as hourly. This habit was exploited by Anangu and early European explorers who followed the birds to the drinking places.
Aliti - Victoria wattle country
This spiky aliti (wattle) is found mainly around the bases of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Tjitutinpa (chiming wedgebill) live there. Their songs are a descending chime of four to six notes, repeated over and over and clearly heard throughout the bird's range, however they are very difficult to see.
Reptiles and amphibians play an important role in Anangu Tjukurpa. The stories of Kuniya (woma python) and Liru (poisonous snake) are two of the main Tjukurpa stories here at Uluru.
The park is very rich in reptile fauna of high conservation significance and there is no other comparable sized area in the Australian semi arid zone known to have such biodiversity. There are 77 recorded species of reptiles and amphibians in the park; 60 lizards, 13 species of snakes, and four frog species.
The lizards range from tiny geckos and skinks, legless lizards, and dragons up to the large goannas, including the second largest in the world, the ngintaka (perentie, Varanus giganteus), which grow in excess of two and a half metres in length.
Most reptiles are opportunistic feeders and hunt and forage in a number of different habitats including open space, sand dunes, and rocky outcrops. Differences in body size mean that large lizards concentrate on larger prey, and small lizards on smaller items. Some species are more active at night while others are more active during the day.
A unique lizard to Central Australia is the ngyari (thorny devil, Moloch horridus), a small spiny dragon that has a strange rocking motion when it walks to confuse birds of prey. It has an unusual way of absorbing water. Narrow grooves separate the scales of the skin and form a continuous network to the mouth. If the animal is in a puddle or on wet sand, water runs up the legs and spreads over the surface of the body by capillary action, eventually reaching the mouth.
Of the 13 species of snakes, two are non-venomous pythons, the kuniya (woma python, Aspidites ramsayi), and warurungkalpa (Stimson's python, Liasis stimsoni), and three are blind snakes. The remaining eight are venomous, three of which are highly venomous. The walalara (western brown) grows up to 1-1.5 metres and can have a large range of colourings from rusty brown to black with orange bands. Panakura (desert death adder, Acanthopis pyrrhus), is an ambush predator rarely seen as it buries itself under leaf litter or loose sand and uses its worm-like tail to attract prey. The most commonly found species is liru (mulga or king brown, Pseudonaja australis), a highly defensive snake that is found in many populated areas and widely distributed across many parts of Australia. The mulga snake has the largest recorded venom output of any snake in the world. Although looking like and being named a brown snake it is technically a member of the black snake family.
Geckos and other reptiles often co-exist and in some areas records show as many as nine different species living close together. Some geckos are arboreal, or tree climbers, others are found within spinifex clumps, and others forage only in open spaces.
Perhaps surprisingly, there are four species of frogs in the park which are well adapted to desert life. They bury themselves deep in the sand at a depth where the temperature is constant. When the rain is heavy enough to soak down to where they have burrowed, they know that the waterholes and creeks are full. They will then emerge, often in vast numbers, to breed. After breeding they bloat themselves full of water and bury below the sand again. Frogs that inhabit the desert are known as 'water-holding' frogs and generally have a broad head, bulbous body and short limbs, with structures called metatarsal tubercles, which are like little spades, on the under surface of the feet to aid digging. Frogs require water to survive so are often seen with their bodies flattened out against any moist surface. Spaces between the cells of their ventral skin develop an increasingly negative pressure as water is lost and this pressure then pulls water from the skin into the body.
Frogs are opportunistic feeders and will eat what resources are available at the time. Their diets include mainly ants and termites, but also beetles, flies, spiders, grasshoppers and moths.
Threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 include tjakura (great desert skink, Egernia kintorei). This species is listed as vulnerable and is mostly restricted to the transitional sand plain system. The park conducts annual monitoring of this species. Both the controlled burning and introduced species control programs aim to create the ideal conditions for this species to increase in number.