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Tropical North Queensland, Australia.
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Evolutionary History

The evolution of Australian tropical Rainforest
Courtesy of Damon Ramsey

The history of the Australian continent

It is now widely accepted that the positions of the continents, and their countries, has changed over time. This idea is called ‘continental drift’ and is explained by the mechanism of plate tectonics (White 1998). It is thought that much of the present land on our planet had it’s origins in various super-continents. The last super-continent was called ‘Pangaea’ and it split into two continents called ‘Laurasia’ and ‘Gondwana’. Laurasia was composed of much of what we now call Europe and North America, while Gondwana comprised many of the so-called ‘southern continents’ such as South America, much of Africa, Australia, New Guinea, Antarctica and India.

Gondwana evolved it’s own distinctive flora and fauna. This connection possibly explains the distribution of groups such as Proteaceae flowers, ratites, parrots and others that are currently more common in the Southern Hemisphere continents.

Eventually, Gondwana broke up into pieces and Australia began to drift in isolation towards South-east Asia. It evolved it’s own unique flora and fauna from Gondwanan stock over millions of years. Australia was covered in much rain forest, although this appeared to be more subtropical in character than tropical (White 1998). This is also when Australia’s unique animals, such as kangaroos and koalas, evolved. This isolation has gradually been coming to an end as Australia nears Asia at a rate of about 7 centimetres a year (White 1998). Many plants and animals have begun to cross over from Asia into Australia, and vice versa. However, this continuing process is a relatively geologically recent event, and the two regions of rain forest in Australia and South-east Asia, although now very close, have very different origins, and thus a different flora and fauna.

A unique and ancient tropical rain forest

Not so long ago, however, Australian ecologists thought that the rain forest in Australia was essentially Asian (e.g. Clark 1979, etc.). It was referred to as the ‘Indo-Malayan element’ of our continent and was thought of as ‘invasive’. The rain forests were not truly Australian elements, as were the Eucalyptus woodlands and Acacia shrub lands.

Eventually scientists began to realize our rain forests were distinctly Australian. Further, palaeontologists began to discover that much of the flora and fauna in the drier open woodlands of present day Australia had actually evolved from original rain forest stock (Winter and Atherton 1987). Many of the animals and plants that exist in the rain forest today may be similar, or related, to these ancestors. For example, the open forest kangaroos we are familiar with today are evolved from a lineage that began with something like the ‘Musky Rat Kangaroo’ Hypsiprymnodon moschatus, that is found only in North Queensland tropical rain forests today. It is also believed there are plants in these same rain forests that represent the ancestral Eucalyptus trees. Thus, experiencing these rain forests may be enabling us to do something that we cannot be do elsewhere; to go back in time and observe Australia’s evolutionary past. Further, the rain forests of Australia may also be historically important in a more international context.

The tropical rain forests of North-east Australia and other areas of the western Pacific are now believed by some scientists to be the oldest in the world. Their evidence is provided by what appears to be the highest concentration of primitive flowering plant families in the world (Adam 1997). This suggests the rain forest has survived in ‘refugia’ for millions of years, avoiding the aridity caused by the ice ages, sea level rises, and destruction by volcanic activity. Of course, the ‘oldest rain forest in the world’ is a concept that is vigorously promoted by many different areas. For example, Malaysia still promotes their forest as ‘the oldest rain forest in the world’ (eg; Uchida 1996).

New Guinea, once part of the Australian continent, also has large tracts of this Australian rain forest. However, being located at the very top of the continent, it represents an interface between the two different biogeographic regions, and thus has a mixed tropical rain forest. For example, although most of its mammals are still of Australian origin, its insects and many of its plants are often considered strongly Southeast Asian (Adam 1997). Thus, the small pockets of tropical rain forest left in Australia are the truest representation of ancient Australian rain forest.


Well-dated evidence now suggests that humans have been in Australia for at least 40,000 years. Some circumstantial evidence even hints at periods longer than this, such as over 100,00 years, but this is yet to be confirmed by multiple techniques. Over this long time, there may have been several waves of successive groups coming into Australia. Nevertheless, today we often tend to lump all native Australians together as 'aboriginals'. However, this all-encompassing name tends to ignore the diversity of cultures within the huge area that is the Australian continent. Australian Aboriginals had over 200 languages recorded and more than 700 dialects, reflecting a cultural diversity comparable to an area such as Europe. The 'Wet tropics' region of North-eastern Queensland included several of these different language groups. While the people around and north of Cairns were believed to belong to the Tjabukai group, the Daintree, from Mossman to Bloomfield, was inhabited by what is now known as the Kuku-Yulangi people.

Ecology and adaptations

The aboriginals of the rainforest would not only have language differences, but were also recorded by early anthropologists to have distinct physical differences to their more open country neighbours. They were observed to be smaller and darker in stature, traits that are often found in forest peoples around the world, and indeed is found in many different organisms of darker, more closed environments.

As with many Aboriginal groups around Australia, movement in response to different seasonal conditions and resources was probably fairly common. Many people were known to move up and down the coast, in and out of the forest into drier woodlands, and from lowlands to higher altitudes. The tropical rainforest was in fact probably not densely inhabited. This can be based purely on the food chain of protein; groups of large animals simply cannot get enough food to support themselves in the rainforest. Protein from hunting other large animals was probably difficult to obtain, and much of this was probably obtained from aquatic organisms, the creeks being fished for jungle perch and turtle. The nearby adjacent coast probably held much larger populations of people, with beaches and mangroves supplying much more accessible protein sources, such as crabs and fish.

Nevertheless, the food in the rainforest was varied and knowledge of the rainforest and it's inhabitants must have been considerable to deal with the high diversity. Many different types of fruits in the rainforest are today known to be edible, knowledge often coming from early explorers and their aboriginal guides. Some are easily edible, such as many of the Syzgium, but some of these plant foods can not be eaten by people today and are considered toxic. In fact, rainforest Aboriginal people were noted for the amount of toxic fruits in their diets. They could eat these by their elaborate processing. Such plant foods included black beans, cycads, and laurels; they were sliced into parts or mashed up, and then stored in permeable bags in running water for days until toxins were leached out. Another feature of the rainforest Aboriginal was their knowledge of seasonal timings and ecology. For example, certain species would indicate when another resource was available, such as the flowering of the 'October Glory' Faradaya splendida indicating that the Brush Turkey eggs could be dug up from their mounds.


It was likely there was much contact between the coastal people here and people living to the north, both in the islands of the Pacific and in south-east Asia. Later competition between the rising powers of Europe resulted in explorers from Spain, France, Holland and England exploring the general region.

In 1770 Lt. James Cook sailed the Endeavour up the east coast of what was then generally known as 'New Holland'. As one heads up the coast, the collection of reefs now known as 'The Great Barrier Reef' gets closer and closer to the coast. Finally, in July 1770 their boat became caught on coral. The ship was held overnight, despite the throwing overboard of cargo. Eventually they broke off, and luckily a chunk of the coral was stuck in the hole. Thus they avoided sinking immediately, and by wrapping a sail around over the damaged hull hole, they were able to sail up the coast until they found a safe anchorage. Lt.. Cook named the headland he had seen on the previous day 'Cape Tribulation' as this was when all their 'trials and tribulations' started. They sailed past the un-noted Bloomfield River and ended up in what is today called the Endeavour River. This place would later be called 'Cook's Town', and is today known as 'Cooktown'. While this enforced landfall was a major hurdle to the expedition, it also resulted in many of the first recordings of Australian animals and plants for western science.

The Aboriginals in this area were the first to be recorded by Cook to actually show curiosity to their ships as he sailed up much of the east coast, thus indicating an understanding of sea-craft and suggesting interactions with other peoples to the north. For the next century a handful of explorers from the increasing colonies down south interacted with the native peoples of the region, but it was not until the discovery of gold west of the Daintree that major changes began. Many Aboriginal people were killed or at least forced from their native lands.

Today, many Aboriginal people are living in areas different from the ones they are thought to have come from. Presently there is often little in the way of evidence of Aboriginal settlement in the Daintree forest, but there are large populations to the south at Mossman and to the north at Bloomfield. One of the best places to learn about the Aboriginal life, both their prehistory in the rainforest and their present day life, is by visiting the centre at Mosman Gorge. Right at the entrance to the park is the Mossman Gorge Aboriginal community, once a Lutheran Missionary and that today has an interpretative centre and shop. At the visitor centre are government funded, community-run walking tours with a local aboriginal person, who will offer information about plants of the rainforest, bush tucker and medicine, and cultural insights. There is also a nice souvenir shop here that sells local artwork, and two excellent small books on the local people and their forest.


When Europeans first began to explore the area the immense jungle understandably suggested an infinite supply of timber. However, the huge diversity of species made determining which timbers were which difficult. Many different species were discovered and classified by the foresters, and received what are today considered strange and sometime inappropriate names after the properties of the wood that we cannot today see in the wild. Thus trees were called 'Silky Oak' for species that are not all related to oaks, (and don't feel particularly silky!). Ultimately, a few dozen timbers were focused on, with timber getters cutting through the forest to get at recognized timbers. These trees included various of the 'Silky Oaks', the best known probably being Cardwellia sublimis., the 'Northern Silky Oak'. However, the most valuable tree was the 'Red Cedar', a tree already known form rainforests further down the east coast. It provided a water resistant timber that was in such popular demand for boat building and furniture, that it was often nicknamed 'Red Gold' and it was at one stage reckoned to be, weight for weight, worth more than gold. Many of the forests that are today accessible to roads were thought to be selectively logged for this and other timbers. The really big trees are often only found several hours walk through the forest from the main roads, or if they are accessible, they are often the unusable tress, such as strangler figs. 

Other industries

While gold was not found in huge amounts in the immediate Daintree area, it was found in the dry country just west over the mountains. This brought people into the area in a series of short but intense gold rushes during the 1870's. This also resulted in the setting up towns settlements that form the basis of the main towns in the region surrounding the Daintree today; Mossman, Cooktown, Port Douglas and Cairns. These last three towns were initially set up as places to export the gold.

Once these intense but short series of gold rushes were over, most people left. Those that stayed attempted different industries. Other industries such as tin mining appeared. The mainstay of the remaining people was agriculture. Some farmers developed orchards that took advantage of the tropical climate and started producing a variety of exotic fruits, with bananas today being one of the main crops of the tropical lowlands north and south of Cairns. There are several orchards that are passed in the Daintree today, including 'Scomazzons' just north of Mossman, the 'Ice Cream factory' just past Cow Bay, and the Daintree Fruit Orchard at Cape Tribulation. However, the superior soils of the Tablelands eventually supported most of the mixed dairy and agriculture, while much of the lowlands became cleared for sugar cane, beginning in the 1870's.


This agricultural development resulted in estimates of 40% of the tropical rainforest being cleared in the next 100 years since European settlement. This development started around the main port towns, and hadn't reached too much of the area north of the Daintree, even by the 1970's. Thus the Daintree has what is the largest remaining area of lowland tropical rainforest in Australia.

It was only in the 1960's and 1970's that biologists began to realize that the area was fairly significant, and the region began to attract groups of conservation minded people living on the land, the time of the 'hippies' or 'ferals'. In the 1980's a road was proposed to follow a track connecting Cape Tribulation and Bloomfield by the then conservative and pro-development Queensland State government. This was known as the 'Bloomfield track', and it became the site of one of Australia earliest and biggest environmental protests. The protests began on a small scale with locals, and then began to become organized through state and national conservation organizations, attracting people from all parts of Australia from all walks of life, many who had never had the chance to see the area. Dramatic demonstrations included people chaining themselves to trees and being buried up to their necks in the ground in front of bulldozers. These groups organized campaigns that utilized current conservation and scientific assessments of the area, and much of today's tourism and Wet Tropics information was produced in this period. 

While the road did eventually go through, the protesters did get the region recognized and generated huge amounts of publicity for the area. Their actions lead to eventual further theoretical protection by declaring the tropical rainforests of north-eastern Queensland under World Heritage status in 1988. This covered about 80% of the Wet Tropics rainforest, including the Daintree National Park, as well as other reserves west of the area, such as those that include the CREB track.


Even up until the 1970's, Cairns and North Queensland were only really known to retired Australians travelling with caravans and 4WDrivers. A consequence of the battles over the conservation of the Daintree was publicity of the region and a curiosity from regular travellers, and even people overseas, to come and see the area.  In the 1980's tourists begin to visit the region in 4WD tours, and backpackers and upmarket clients bounced along the still dirt road to Cape Tribulation from the Daintree crossing, either kicking up dust in the dry season and turning the road side vegetation brown, or sliding around the muddy tracks in the wet season. Over the last few years the Cape Tribulation road has become sealed bit by bit, accommodation and eateries have increased, and new boardwalks have been constructed.

Scientific research

The latest and perhaps more interesting industry that has arrived in the Daintree is science and research. Previous to the 1990's much of the tropical research was performed by scientists trained and working in southern temperate universities, or based with national scientific organizations like CSIRO, or National Parks. Other more independent researchers such as High Spencer set up his Cape Tribulation Research Centre at the 'Bat House'. But the establishment of a campus of James Cook University at Cairns has seen an increase of research scientists in the area, working on everything from plants to pythons to possums. The enormous and expensive 'Canopy Crane' was constructed to enable scientists access into the rainforest canopy.

Script: Courtesy of  Damon Ramsey BSc.(Zool) Biologist Guide

Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges
Lake Eacham, Atherton Tablelands
Tropical North Queensland, Australia.
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