Desert Shrublands & Grasslands 
Mulga scrublands, Spinifex grasslands & Chenopod shrublands

More of the Australian continent is covered in arid habitats than any other type of habitat.

Damon Ramsey in desertThe author Damon Ramsey made to feel small in the expansive salt flats!

The 'deserts' of Australia are not just the rolling sand dunes people have in their mind when they think of that word. It includes the grasslands, shrublands and woodlands of the arid regions, where the erratic rainfall is less than the evaporation rates of that water, resulting in a deficit of moisture. As the world's driest continent, Australia obviously has a large portion of it's country defined as arid 'desert' ecosystems.  

desert-rain-cloudsDark rain clouds on the horizon of the Australian desert

Unlike many other arid areas in the world, in Australia the rainfall is not always received in annual cycles, but often follows longer term non-annual events. There is a boom-and-bust pattern that occurs over many years, and can be unpredictable, with little rain for many years, and then a huge amount at once with subsequent flooding.  

desert lake full of waterDesert lake full of water, South Australia

Over long periods of time, weathering and oxidisation has resulted in distinctive bright orange-red soils. Under and around the small trees and shrubs, much of the arid land of Australia is dominated by bunches of prickly grass called 'Spinifex'.

red sand of desertthat red sand gets everywhere. Just ask Anakin.

Despite the poor quality substrate and unpredictable rainfall, there is a surprising range of beautiful flowers, and they can add a splash of colour to the arid habitats across Australia.


The most important and obvious group of plants in the arid areas of Australia are the Spinifex grasses, Triodia. They are a different genus from the 'true' Spinifex of the coastal areas.  There are over 65 species, many teased out only recently. They are all endemic to Australia. Aboriginal uses of these widespread plants included burning for long range black smoke signals, and the resin was used as glue for spear-making.

spinifex-ring-millstream(Millstream, WA)

There are about 85 species in the genus Swainsona. All these except for one species, are endemic to Australia. Most are prostate, crawling along the ground with opposite leaves. They include some of the brighter and erect pea flowers in the Australian desert. Some species produce a compound called swainsonine, a phytotoxin that causes disease in cattle when ingested. This is also found in a few other plants in the Americas that called 'locoweed'. The resulting sickness is referred to as swainsonine toxicosis, or 'peastruck' in Australia.

sturt's desert peaSturt's Desert Pea, (Coober Pedy, SA)

Acacia is the biggest genus of plants in Australia. In these arid areas many species of 'Wattle' are often the dominant and most common trees. In the tropical species, what tends to look like the leaves are actually flattened stems called phyllodes, which effectively act like leaves, being photosynthetic. The flowers are mostly yellow, either in balls or spikes. The fruits are brown pods with small black seeds, often with a small yellow or orange fleshy connection.

acacia-tetragonophylla-millstream-kirinjiniAcacia tetragonophylla, 'Dead Finish', (Pilbara, W.A.)

The Chenopodiaceae is an important and diverse group in the Australian arid regions because it contains widespread salt-tolerant groups such as Ptilotus, and the Samphires & Bluebushes. 

bluebush-maireana-coober-pedy(Bluebush, outside of Coober Pedy, South Australia)

The genus Ptilotus contains some 120 species. They are herbs or small shrubs. They usually have pink flowers that hang down like a tail, and thus are often nicknamed pussycat, lambs or fox 'tails'. One of the Aboriginal names that has stuck is 'Mulla Mullaa'. They are a common and diverse group within arid habitats across Australia, and are endemic to that continent. They are most diverse in the Pilbara region.

ptilotus-field(South Australia)

Except for one species, the 'Samphires' are found only in Australia. They are small shrubs. Their leaves and stems have a jointed segmented appearance and are fleshy. These plants are found in and adapted to high salt situations, such as the edge of mangroves, mudflats, saline and dry lakes, and deserts.

tecticornia-lake-king-closeTecticornia sp. 'Samphire', (Lake King, Western Australia)

The flowers of some Eremophilas have colourful petals to attract pollinators, which then droop, fade and then fall off, to reveal a different but equally colourful set of sepals to attract seed dispersers...  

eremophila-cuneifoli-flowers-kirinjiEremophila cuneifoli, 'Pinyuru', 'Royal Poverty Bush' (Pilbara).

Along with the Orchidaceae and Legumes, the Asteraceae are one of the most diverse plant families in the world. They are common and diverse in the arid Australian habitats.

polycalymma-stuartii-daisy-poached-egg-SAPolycalymma stuartii, 'Poached Egg Daisy', (South Australia).

The family Goodeniaceae contains about 200 species. While a few species extend into south-east Asia, most are found and are endemic to the arid habitats of the mainland states of Australia.

goodenia-cycloptera-SAGoodenia cylcoptera, (South Australia)

Watch out for small but painful scorpions! Most species are small and cryptically coloured. They have relatively thick tails and thin tweezer like pincers.

scorpion-nullabor(Nullabor, South Australia)

One of the most commonly encountered animals in the Australian arid regions are the ants. There are about 80 described species in the genus Iridomyrmex, which includes the 'Meat Ants'; they build slightly raised circular nests on the ground.

ant-nest-round-iridomyrmex-exmouth(Exmouth, WA)

One of the groups of animals that are traditionally least adapted and species diverse in the deserts are the amphibians. But despite this, there are frogs to be found here. There are 9 or so species in this genus Neobatrachus, the. 'Desert Frogs' . They are round, squat frogs, with pupils that constrict into a vertically. During the dry times they are buried underground; once it starts to rain, they emerge to breed. All the species are endemic to Australia, found across arid areas of the continent, with most species found in south west of Australia.

(inland of Shark Bay, Western Australia)

There is one group that is very diverse in these arid habitats of Australia - lizards! In fact, there are claims that some of the dry habitats in Australia, such as the Spinifex grasslands, have the highest diversity of lizards in the world. However, this does not mean you will see lots of them; in the winter they may be scarce, and in the summer, they run fast and quickly take shelter inside and under the prickly grasses.

dragon-western-ringtailed-millstream-'Western Ring-tail Dragon', (Millstream National Park, Western Australia)

Despite the aridity, the drier areas of Australia are home to some of our most colourful birds!  While the diversity of birds in the Australian arid areas is not high compared to the other habitats on the continent, or the equivalent arid areas of Africa, there are still many interesting species to be found. 

(Crimson Chat, north of Cober Pedy)

Emus are by far the biggest birds in the arid habitats across Australia. They can run up to 50 k/p/h, often running in zig-zagging patterns that look comical, but can outmaneuver predators.

emu-and-kids-bladensbergEmu (outside Bladensberg National Park, western Queensland)

The next largest bird of the arid Australian habitats is the Ardeotis australis 'Australian Bustard'. This is a large bird, being about a metre in height. Despite the size, they are often not noticed by drivers as they race past on outback roads. These days, they are usually found in arid tropical grasslands, although they were previously more widespread across Australia.


One of the biggest families are the pigeons and doves of the Columbidae. One of the more common and adaptable is Ocyphaps lophotes, the 'Crested Pigeon'.

pigeon-crested-nallan(Nallan Station, Western Australia)

The 'Spinifex Pigeon' is found, as the names suggests, around spinifex communities.

pigeon-spinifex-bladensberg-Eastern White-bellied Spinifex Pigeon (Bladensberg, Queensland)

This largest eagle in Australia is Aquila audax, the 'Wedge-tailed Eagle'. It is found across the drier open habitats across much of the continent, including being a common sight on the side of roads where it feeds on roadkill. In this way, it seems to fill in a niche equivalent to old world vultures in Africa and Asia. However, they are very wary when approached at carcasses, and quickly take off when approached. 

eagle-wedge-tailed-flight-coober-pedy'Wedge-tailed Eagle' in flight with distinctive diamond-shaped tail, (north of Coober Pedy, S.A).

The cockatoos of the family Cacatuidae and the parrots of the family family Psittaculidae include many iconic and colourful species. As a group they seemed to have adapted widely and well to arid habitats across Australia, despite the need for water to supplement their dry food diets. Eolophus (Cacatua) roseicapilla, Galahs', the pink parrots, are widespread in any dry habitat across most of Australia, including farms and towns.

galahs-nallanGalahs trying to play soccer, (Nallan Station, WA)

The most popular pet bird in the world is from the arid habitats of Australia: Melopsittacus undulatus, 'Budgerigar'. Wild budgies are usually green and yellow, not the other colours seen in cage birds. They are normally seen in flocks, often large. They are nomadic. So putting a nomadic and social bird in a tiny cage by itself, is probably very illogical, but the 'budgie' is the third most popular pet in the world, after the puppy and the pussy. Found in arid habitats across inland Australia.


One of the more widespread parrots across the arid habitats of Australia is Barnardius zonarius, the (Australian) 'Ringneck Parrot'.


There are a range of smaller birds to be found in the arid habitats, such as the Fairy Wrens...

fairy-wren-splendid-male-nallanSplendid Fairy Wren, (Nallan station, WA)

...and the 'grass-finches' of the family Estrildidae...


...but it is the honeyeater family that is the largest group of birds in arid Australia...

honeyeater-spiny-cheeked-nallan'Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater', (Nallan Station, W.A.).
honeyeater-pied-coober-pedymale Pied Honeyeater (north of Coober Pedy)

Chats are a type of honeyeater that has evolved to feed on the ground of arid areas, where they feed on the nectar on low flowers, but where they also catch a lot of invertebrates.

chat-crimson-coober-pedy'Crimson Chat', (Stuart Highway, north of Coober Pedy).

Some birds might be harder to see, but their calls are distinctive of the Australian desert: a good example of this is the: 'Chiming Wedgebill'. It has a piercing series of four fast descending notes followed by a short sharp squawk, that is repeated constantly and sounds like a squeaky uneven wheel rolling along. 


The biggest and most obvious group of mammals in Australia's arid habitats are the Kangaroos and Wallabies of the superfamily Macropodoidea. Some of the larger species, like Red and Western Grey Kangaroo and Euro (below) are still common.

wallaroo-hopping-cape-range'Euro' or '(Western) Wallaroo'.

However, many of the smaller species are rarer. In the last few hundred years of European settlement, many species of the Australian arid regions have been reduced in number or even become extinct.

wallaby-hare-dryandra'Rufous Hare-Wallaby', (Barna Mia, Dryandra)

The Rock Wallabies are a fascinating group and representative of the arid habitats. As suggested by the name, they live only in rocky habitats, where they can avoid introduced predators such as Dingoes. They have adapted for life in these areas, becoming the ecological equivalent to Eurasian Mountain Goats or African Hyrax, and being able to leap about between the boulders. 


Here the Rock Wallabies have become isolated in their micro habitats, and evolved into many different species across arid Australia.

rock-wallaby-yellow-footed-'Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby', (Flinders Ranges, South Australia)
rock-wallaby-leaping-cape-range'Black-flanked Rock Wallaby', (Yardie Creek, Cape Range National Park, WA)

One of the reasons for the relatively high rate of native mammal extinctions in Australian arid habitats is no doubt the obvious amount of introduced mammals. The list is long and includes camels, goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, and cows.

camel-wintonCamel (Winton)

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