Daintree

Lush tropical rainforests and coral reefs meet in the scenic and popular coastal section of the ‘Daintree’ (the part of the Wet Tropics located between the Daintree and Bloomfield Rivers). Away from the coast, the land rises steeply to a cloud-swept coastal range dominated by Thornton Peak.

The Daintree is renowned for its rich diversity of plants and wildlife with lowland and upland rainforests, mangroves and wetland swamps. Rare and unusual species include locally endemic and primitive flowering plants, the southern cassowary and Bennett’s tree-kangaroo.

The Kuku Yalanji people who have lived in this area for thousands of years call Cape Tribulation, “Kulki”. The Cape was named by Captain Cook as the place his troubles began when his ship the Endeavour was holed after colliding with a coral reef during his historic 1770 voyage of discovery.

It is just one part of the 894,420 hectares of Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The term ‘Greater Daintree’ covers the area from the Annan River, south of the Mossman River and Carbine Tablelands and west to the Mt Windsor Tablelands. The Daintree area is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world and contains the oldest intact tropical lowland rainforest in the world. Some of the trees found here are thought to be more than 3,000 years old. Vegetation is primarily tropical rainforest, but also includes open eucalypt forest, wetlands and mangrove forests.

Daintree National Park stretches from Mossman Gorge to Bloomfield River. About 17,000ha of land between Daintree River and Cape Tribulation is protected as Daintree National Park. It is bordered on the western side by an extensive timber reserve which stretches over Thornton Range and beyond. In 1988 the national park, timber reserve and other public lands and some privately owned land was declared part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. A sizeable portion of the lowlands along the Daintree Coast is privately owned freehold land.

Daily temperatures range from a maximum of 35°C to a minimum of 16°C. Average humidity during summer months is 78 percent with many days reaching the high 90s. The area receives 75 to 90 percent of its rainfall during the wet season from December to April, when daily falls of 250mm are often recorded.

Daintree Village is about 12km upstream from the ferry crossing on the southern bank of the Daintree River. In 1873 explorer George Elphinstone Dalrymple named the river in honour of his old boss Richard Daintree who was once government geologist for north Queensland.

The Daintree River is 120km long. Distance from the ferry crossing to the river mouth is 7km as the crow flies or 9.5km as the crocodile swims. Distance from Cairns to the ferry is 104km by road.

Animals and plants

The southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii ) is the main long distance disperser of the seeds of more than 70 species of trees whose fruit is too large for most other forest dwelling animals to eat and relocate. There are at least another 80 species of plants whose dispersal is also assisted by the cassowary’s eating habits. These species have smaller seeds which could be eaten and dispersed by other animals but many are toxic to most other animals. The greatest overall threats to cassowaries are: road traffic; attack by dogs; habitat fragmentation which leads to population fragmentation; disease and feral pigs. In the Daintree lowlands, mangroves and swamps are important refuge areas and movement corridors for sub-adult and juvenile cassowaries.

The musky rat-kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus) is often active during the day and may be glimpsed foraging on the forest floor. This small creature looks similar to a bandicoot, but has dark, chocolate brown fur. It is the smallest and the most primitive member of the kangaroo family and is believed to have remained relatively unchanged over the last 20 million years. The musky rat-kangaroo has retained the mobile first toe on the hind foot, a characteristic of possums. It is unique in representing an early stage of evolution of macropods from an arboreal possum-like stock. Although related to the kangaroo it does not hop but moves along on all fours often at high speed.

Bennett's tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus bennettianus) is found only in the lowland and upland rainforests north of the Daintree River in an area of only 70km by 50km. Like all kangaroos and wallabies, tree-kangaroos have evolved from possums. Leaving its life on the ground, this secretive animal has reverted to an arboreal existence, feeding and sleeping among the treetops, although it will often descend to the forest floor in search of fallen fruits or to move between isolated trees.

South of the Daintree River the more widespread Lumholtz's tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) can be found in rainforest, usually at an altitude above 500m.

The Daintree River ringtail possum (Pseudochirulus cinereus) is not found along the Daintree River, except in its uppermost reaches in the cool, wet upland rainforests of the Mt Carbine and Mt Windsor Tablelands. The Daintree River ringtail possum is endemic to the Wet Tropics. There are three disjunct populations: Thornton Peak, Mt Windsor Tableland and Mt Carbine Tableland. They are found in cool wet rainforest 450-1250m above sea level.

The double-eyed fig parrot feeds almost entirely on fig trees. These small, green, stumpy-tailed birds have colourful facial patterns which give the illusion of a double eye. They are Australia’s smallest parrots and spend much of their time high in rainforest trees.

The brilliant blue and black Ulysses butterfly (Papilio Ulysses) is commonly seen in rainforest openings such as lookouts. The Ulysses butterfly is attracted to red, blue and mauve colours and will sometimes come to rest on visitors’ clothing.

Primitive flowering plants

Australia’s only species of rhododendron (Rhododendron lochiae) is restricted to the wet mountain tops of the Wet Tropics.

The tree Gymnostoma (Gymnostoma australianum) is Australia’s only example of the casuarina-like Gymnostomas which were once wide-spread in Gondwana. The only known Australian populations are in the Daintree.

Cooper Creek Walnut (Endiandra cooperana) is known to exist in only two locations in lowland rainforest adjacent to Cooper Creek in Far North Queensland. One location containing 34 plants greater than 1 metre is within the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park adjacent to the Daintree- Cape Tribulation Road and the second contains 17 plants taller than 1 metre on nearby freehold land.

Endiandra cooperana grows up to 25 metres in height with a buttressed stem. It does not mature and produce flowers until it has reached the top of the rainforest canopy. Since the arrival of the feral pig any fruit that are produced are eaten and/or destroyed.

The Ribbonwood tree (Idiospermum australiense) also known as ‘the green dinosaur’ or ‘idiot fruit’ is a rare and primitive flowering plant that lived when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Idiospermum australiense was first located in the late 1800s by timber cutters who brought it to the attention of a German botanist named Diels. By the time Diels returned to the spot where this tree was found, they had been clear-felled for sugarcane. It was believed to be gone forever. However, in 1971, the species was re-discovered because its fruit was turning up in the stomachs of dead cattle (the fruit appear to be toxic to modern fauna - eating the fruit causes a syndrome of tetanic convulsions). After it's rediscovery it was re-classified into its monotypic family, the Idiospermaceae.

Another intriguing aspect to Idiospermum australiense is how its seeds are dispersed. The successful continuance of most rainforest species depends on their seeds being dispersed away from the parent plant. Idiospermum australiense seeds are large, heavy, do not float and are too poisonous for animals to eat. Gravity dispersal may be why Idiospermum australiense is now only found in very wet lowland rainforest in very few locations.

Perhaps a clue to its distribution can be found by examining Idiospermum's long existence in the forest. The Tertiary period (from 2 million to 65 million years ago) was the age of the Australian megafauna but Idiospermum would have developed earlier on in the Age of Angiosperms which started at around 120 million years ago. Perhaps the heavy seeds were distributed by a much larger animal which has since become extinct. Thus, the tree now persists only where gravity has allowed its seeds to fall and settle.

Recently a chemical known as Idiospermuline has been extracted from the plant’s seeds, and is thought to have medicinal value.

Unlike today’s monocots (one seed leaf) and dicots (two seed leaves) the Ribbonwood has between two and six seed leaves that can send up multiple stems. It also relies purely on gravity to disperse its seeds. Its large and heavy seeds do not float and rely purely on gravity for dispersal. This may be why the Ribbonwood tree only found in the wettest lowland rainforests – where its seeds settle and take root.
 

 

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