Plants and animals
Kakadu is a place of enormous biological diversity. Within the vast landscapes, there are six main landforms. These landforms are home to a range of plants and animals, endemic to Kakadu. For further detail on the plants and animals that occur specifically within each landform, explore our landscapes.
With more than 2,000 plant species, Kakadu is bursting with life. Many of our plants have been used by local Aboriginal people for generations as bush foods, medicines and weaving materials.
For more information about bush foods go to the Kakadu Tourism website.
Some of the more common plant species easily recognised in the park are:
Gonggirr is the most common of the three species of pandanus found in Kakadu. It is easily recognised by its ‘cork-screw’ leaf arrangement.
The dead leaves hang in skirts, providing a sanctuary for wrens, bats, mice and lizards. The ripe orange fruits are a favourite food of sulphur-crested cockatoos.
Aboriginal people use the leaves of this pandanus for weaving baskets and mats. The large clusters of woody nuts, madjamairerri, contain seeds that are eaten raw or roasted.
This tall grass lines Kakadu’s lowlands in the late wet season (March-April), when its flower spikes can grow up to 4 metres high.
It gets its name from the spear-like shape of its sharp, pointed seeds.
These seeds are harvested by ants and provide an important food source for birds such as finches.
In Banggerreng time, around April each year, the ‘knock em down storms’ arrive and flatten the speargrass ahead of another dry season.
This small native tree has the most beautiful yellow flowers, which appear in the dry season as the plant loses its leaves. The flowers develop into green capsules, then harden and turn brown. The capsules split open to release a cotton wool-like material called kapok to which the seeds are attached.
Aboriginal people have developed many uses for this plant. We eat the flowers raw or cooked and use the roots of the young plant as a food source between September and December.
Kapok is used for ceremonial body decorations and the bark of the tree can be used to make string and paint brushes.
This is a common tree in Kakadu - look for dark woolly bark on the lower half of the tree’s trunk, with smooth white bark on the upper trunk and branches.
This tree is a calendar tree - a tree that helps Aboriginal people determine the season and what work they need to do. At the beginning of the cold dry season (May-June) the woollybutt begins to produce spectacular orange flowers. This tells us that it’s time to start lighting fires, to ‘clean up the country’ and prevent intense wildfires late in the dry season.
Water lilies are commonly found in the waterways and wetlands of Kakadu. They are easily identified by their picturesque flowers.
Their hollow green flower stems are juicy and taste a little like celery sticks. The root tuber is fleshy and are dug up as a source of food during Gurrung season. The roots contain starchy seeds that are ground into a paste and can be made into small cakes, which are then baked in the ground.
The diverse ecosystems of Kakadu National Park support an extraordinary array of animals—a number of which have adapted to particular habitats. Some animals in the park are considered rare, endangered or endemic (not found anywhere else in the world).
Sugar gliders, brush-tailed phascogales and northern quolls are some of the many small mammals that hide during the day in tree-hollows. Brown bandicoots shelter in logs or dense grass. If you are camping, you might see bandicoots as they search for their food at night.
Some mammals move between habitats in response to changing conditions. During the dry season, dusky rats shelter in the deep cracks of dry floodplain soils. When the monsoon rains arrive and flooding begins the rats move into adjacent woodlands.
Of the eight kinds of macropod (kangaroo) found in the park, agile wallabies and antilopine wallaroos are the most common. You may see them as they feed in open grassy areas. From campgrounds you may hear dingoes howling at night, or glimpse them as you travel through the park. These canines are thought to have reached Australia in the company of humans about 5,000 years ago.
About one-third of all Australian bats are found in Kakadu. You may spot some of the smaller species flying at dusk to catch insects. The largest bats are flying-foxes. During the day they roost in large noisy colonies in mangroves, paperbark forests and monsoon rainforests. At night they feast on fruit and the nectar of woodland flowers, pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds as they feed.
- Agile wallaby | Macropus agilis | Gornobolah
- Antilopine wallaby | Macropus antilopinus | Garnday (female) | Garndagdi (male)
- Black fruit bat | Pteropus alecto | Na-ngamu
- Black wallaroo | Macropus bernardus | Barrk
- Black-footed tree-rat | Mesembriomys gouldii | Barri
- Brown bandicoot | Isoodon macrourus | Yok
- Brush-tailed phascogale | Phascogale tapoatafa | Wumbu
- Dingo | Canis familiaris dingo | Dalkgen
- Dugong | Dugong dugong | Mardingunjngunj
- Northern quoll | Dasyurus hallucatus | Njanjma
- Short-eared rock wallaby | Petrogale brachyotis | Badbong
Kakadu's many habitats support more than 280 species of birds, or about one-third of Australia's bird species. Some birds range over a number of habitats, but many are found in only one environment.
In the wet season streams and rivers rise and floodplains are inundated. The rising waters signal the beginning of the breeding season for water birds as they spread throughout the vast expanses of shallow water.
As the water recedes through the dry season, these birds congregate on shrinking billabongs, and deep waterholes. Late in the dry season large flocks of magpie geese, plumed whistling-ducks and other water birds crowd the remaining billabongs like Mumukala and Yellow Water.
Stately brolgas, jabirus and egrets patrol the shallows while comb-crested jacanas walk across the lily leaves and many different birds of prey cruise the skies. The largest of these, the white-bellied sea-eagle, glides over the billabongs plucking fish from the water with large talons.
In the woodlands blue-winged kookaburras perch in the trees, lorikeets and honeyeaters feast on the nectar of eucalypt flowers and whistling and black kites fly overhead.
Peaceful doves and partridge pigeons feed along road verges and flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos eat seeds on recently burnt ground. Crimson finches build their nests at the base of the spiky leaves of the pandanus.
Chestnut-quilled rock-pigeons are found on rock ledges of the escarpment and outliers such as Ubirr and Nourlangie. Monsoon rainforests, home to the orangefooted scrubfowl and rainbow pitta, are visited by many animals, including the Torres Strait Imperial Pigeon.
At night owls, frogmouths and curlews are active and noisy, and may be visible from roads.
- Barking owl | Ninox connivens | Mobbok
- Black kite | Milvus migrans | Marram
- Blue-winged kookaburra | Dacelo leachii | Galdurkk
- Burdekin duck | Tadorna radjah | Na-ngarralbak
- Bush thick-knee | Burhinus grallarius | Gurrwirluk
- Chestnut-quilled rock pigeon | Petrophassa rufipennis | Gurrbelak
- Comb-crested jacana | Iredippara gallinacea | Garlarrwidwid
- Green pygmy-goose | Nettapus pulchellus | Biwudj
- Jabiru | Xenorhynchus asiaticus | Djagarna
- Magpie goose | Anseranas semipalmata | Bamurru
- Partridge pigeon | Geophaps smithii | Ragul
- Plumed whistling-duck | Dendrocygna eytoni | Djurrbiyuk
- Rainbow bee-eater | Merops ornatus | Berrerdberrerd
- Rainbow pitta | Pitta iris | Worrbauworrbauk
- Red collared lorikeet | Trichoglossus haematodus | Deded
- Red-tailed black cockatoo | Calyptorhynchus magnificus | Garnamarr
- Torresian crow | Corvus orru | Wakwak
- Whistling kite | Haliastur sphenurus | Marram
- White-bellied sea eagle | Haliaeetus leucogaster | Marrawuddi
To date, 117 species of reptiles have been recorded in Kakadu and they include Kakadu's largest predators, crocodiles and snakes.
Two species of crocodile occur in Kakadu: the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) and the estuarine, or saltwater, crocodile (C. porosus). Freshwater crocodiles are easily identified by their narrow snout and a single row of four large 'scutes' (dermal plates) immediately behind the head. Estuarine crocodiles do not have these scutes and their snout is broader. The maximum size for a 'freshie' is three metres, where as a 'saltie' can exceed six metres. Estuarine crocodiles are most common in tidal rivers, floodplain billabongs and coastal waters but are also found in freshwater billabongs and waterways as far inland as the base of the escarpment.
Skinks and snakes
A variety of reptile species inhabit the park, among them 37 skink species and 36 species of land snakes. Only four of the snakes are considered potentially lethal to humans - the taipan, the death adder, the king brown and the western brown. One of the more unusual snakes found in the park is the file snake. Their valvular nostrils and rough skin for grasping prey are adaptations to a life spent entirely in water.
Waterways are home to water pythons that feed on birds and their eggs. The Oenpelli python, which lives only on the Arnhem Land Plateau and is well known to Aboriginal people, was only discovered by Western scientists in 1976.
Watch for small dragon lizards and skinks scurrying into the undergrowth along walking tracks. The spectacular frilled-necked lizard hides in the trees through the dry season and appears after the first wet season rains.
There are 11 types of turtle in the park including the northern yellow-faced, northern snapping, sawshelled, long-necked and pig-nosed turtles. 11 species of monitor lizards, also known as goannas, may be seen along road verges, alongside rivers, creeks and billabongs. Depending on their habitat they eat fish, frogs, insects, eggs, birds, small mammals and carrion.
- Arafura file snake | Acrochordus arafurae | Na-wandak
- Flatback turtle | Chelonia depressa | Lumbybugan (Limilngan language)
- Estuarine crocodile | Crocodylus porosus | Ginga fact sheet
- Freshwater crocodile | Crocodylus johnstonii | Gumugen fact sheet
- Frill-necked lizard | Chlamydosaurus kingii | Narlangak
- Gould's goanna | Varanus gouldii | Galawan
- Long-necked turtle | Chelodina rugusa | Al-mangiyi
- Merten's water monitor | Varanus mertensi | Burarr
- Olive python | Liasis olivaceus | Alngurruhmanj
- Pig-nosed turtle | Carettachelys insculpta | Warradjan
- Rough knob-tail gecko | Nephrurus asper | Belerrk
Kakadu's frogs are extremely well adapted to the region's climatic extremes. Many remain dormant during rainless times. With the onset of the wet season, when the billabongs and swamps start to fill with water, the night air is filled with the sounds of frogs such as the northern bullfrog and the marbled frog.
As the water builds up frogs and tadpoles have an abundance of food, such as algae, vegetation, insects, dragonfly nymphs, and other tadpoles.
Not all of Kakadu's frogs are found in the wetlands: many, such as the green tree frog and the spadefoot toad, live in the lowland forests.
- Green tree frog | Litoria caerulea
- Copland's rock frog | Litoria coplandi
More than 57 species of freshwater fish have been recorded in Kakadu's waterways. Eight of them have a restricted distribution. In the Magela Creek system alone, 32 species have been found. In comparison, the Murray-Darling river system, the most extensive in Australia, supports only 27 native fish species.
Some species, such as the primitive archer fish, the sooty grunter, or black bream, and the toothless catfish, live mainly in clear water near the escarpment. In the billabongs and creeks, some of the more common fish are barramundi, freshwater long-toms, salmon-tailed catfish, chequered rainbow fish, and the saratoga. The last two also appear in waters near the escarpment.
Although introduced fish have been found in most Australian waterways, none have been recorded in the park.
Recreational fishing (with lures) is permitted in waters west of the Kakadu Highway except in the West Alligator River System. To provide refuge areas, fishing is not permitted in waters east of the Kakadu Highway except at the camping areas of Muirella Park (Djarradjin and Sandy Billabongs) and Jim Jim Billabong. Cast nets, traps, spear guns and crab pots are not permitted but can be left at the Bowali Visitor Centre during your stay. Bag limits apply to barramundi and other species. Contact the Bowali Visitor Centre, telephone (08) 8938 1120 for up-to-date information.
- Archer fish | Toxotes chatareus | Njarlgan
- Barramundi| Lates calcarifer | Na-marnkol
- Long tom | Strongylura kreffti | Burdukkulung
- Saratoga | Scleropages jardini | Guluibirr
- Sooty grunter/black bream | Hephaestus fuliginosus | Galarrk
Despite the fact that Kakadu supports many thousands of insect species, these creatures are often overlooked by visitors. Insects are common throughout the year in the tropics and may be present in large numbers. Among the insect groups are grasshoppers, beetles, flies, termites, butterflies and moths, bees, wasps, ants, dragonflies and damsel flies, caddis flies, non-biting midges and mayflies. The great variety of insects is a result of the varied habitats and relatively high temperatures throughout the year.
Leichhardt's grasshopper Petasida ephippigera, Al-yurr
The Leichhardt's grasshopper is found in only 3 places in the world, and one of those places is Kakadu. The grasshopper feeds on Pityrodia bushes in sandstone country. The adults and larger nymphs are bright orange and blue and occur at the beginning of the calendar year. Their younger nymphs are brown, live close to the ground and are almost impossible to see, and this is the reason that these grasshoppers were thought to disappear for most of the year.
The traditional owners from this region call the grasshopper Alyurr, meaning children of the lightning man, Namarrgon, a powerful ancestral being. The country around Darwin and across to Arnhem Land has one of the highest incidences of lightning in the world. Namarrgon is commonly depicted in the regions rock art with axes hanging from his body, which he uses to strike the clouds. Around Kakadu the axes on his head represent grasshopper's antennae.
Green tree ants Oecophylla smaragdina
Green tree ants occur throughout the tropics of Australia, as well as Asia and New Guinea. Nests are made of leaves held together with silk produced by the larvae but applied by the adult works as if using glue-guns. Most of the nest construction and weaving is conducted at night with major workers weaving towards the exterior of the nests and minor workers weaving within the interior.
A mature colony of green tree ants can hold as many as 100,000 to 500,000 workers and may span as many as 12 trees and contain as many as 150 nests. Green ant colonies have one queen and a colony can live for up to eight years.
Termites and cathedral termite mounds
Termite mounds are a conspicuous part of the environment. Termites are actually unrelated to ants even though they do look quite like colorless ants. They also have a social order that is reminiscent of ants, living in large colonies with workers, soldiers, and an egg-laying queen. Many species occur and by far the majority are grass-feeders rather than timber pests. The giant mounds are made of mud and termite saliva, and they are of a hardness somewhere between baked pottery and concrete. These mounds stand above the nests and help control airflow and temperature in the extensive network of subterranean tunnels.
Nests vary with species and size with age, with some thought to live up to 60 years.
Only discovered in 1991, this is a large, dull grey-brown dragonfly has small pale yellow marks on the abdomen. It is inactive during the day resting on the walls of cave entrances and other cool damp places. It only becomes active at dusk when is rapidly flies in search of other insects which catches and eats while still on the run.
Very little is known about the nymphal stages other than that they are aquatic and feed on other small freshwater animals.
Early in the morning, large numbers of these dragonflies can be seen descending down from high in the trees to sun themselves and raising their body temperatures for efficient functioning. During the late morning and afternoon, they are most often seen over water, alighting on the tops of the waterside vegetation. They hunt on the wing, gathering in swarms when food is abundant and capturing flying insects in their legs which have bristles that interlock to trap the prey.
These dragonflies have an approximate wingspan of 10 cm.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 protects nationally threatened native species and ecological communities, native migratory species and marine species. Australia is also a signatory to several international agreements further protecting the wildlife and habitats of Kakadu.
A threatened species is a native species that is at risk of becoming endangered in the near future. A threatened species may have a declining population or be exceptionally rare. Like endangered species, the cause of its rarity is variable, but may be due to threats such as habitat destruction, climate change, or pressure from invasive species.
Threatened species are divided in to three categories depending on the degree of risk:
In Kakadu, there are 26 species listed as threatened.
Listed as critically endangered
- Bare-rumped sheathtail bat (Saccolaimus saccolaimus nudicluniatus)
- Speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis)
Listed as endangered
- Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae)
- Yellow chat (Epthianura crocea tunneyi)
- Northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus)
- Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)
- Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea)
- Arnhemland egernia (Bellatorias obiri)
- Yellow-snouted gecko (Lucasium occultum)
- Northern river shark (Glyphis garricki)
Listed as vulnerable
- Red goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiatus)
- Partridge pigeon (Geophaps smithii smithii)
- Masked owl (Tyto novaehollandiae kimberli)
- Northern shrike-tit (Falcunculus frontatus whitei)
- Northern brushtailed phascogale (Phascogale pirata)
- Water mouse (Xeromys myoides)
- Golden-backed tree rat (Mesembriomys macrurus)
- Golden bandicoot (Isoodon auratus auratus)
- Brush-tailed rabbit rat (Conilurus penicillatus)
- Arnhem rock-rat (Zyzomys maini)
- Plains death adder (Acanthophis hawkei)
- Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
- Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
- Flatback turtle (Natator depressus)
- Dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata)
- Freshwater sawfish (Pristis microdon)