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By Andrea Wild Peta Martin 12 December 2022 5 min read

From native holly to Christmas beetles that can outshine any bauble. We're sharing 12 species of Christmas that remind us of the festive season in Australia. But keep an eye out for our Christmas Grinch!

A partridge that’s a pigeon

Geophaps smithii smithii (partridge pigeon)

The partridge pigeon is a pigeon, not a partridge. Many Australian birds were named by early English naturalists for their similar looks to European birds. The partridge pigeon is a threatened species that lives in the Kimberley and the north of the Northern Territory.

Partridge pigeon standing on the dry ground.
Partridge Pigeon at Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Credit: Brian Ralphs.

Two copepods

Acartia sinjiensis

Prawns[Link will open in a new window] are a common sight at Australian festive celebrations. Copepods are their tiny crustacean cousins.

At the Australian National Algae Culture Collection[Link will open in a new window] in Hobart, we keep a species of copepod called Acartia sinjiensis for research and aquaculture. They can also be used as live food for tropical fish larvae.

Ros Watson[Link will open in a new window] cares for the collection. She says the species lives around the coast and estuaries of Far North Queensland. In culture (when growing in a lab), they like low light and warm, brackish water.

Copepods in culture need to be fed twice per week. This means Ros and her colleagues will be feeding them sugared plums (or more likely algae strains) during the festive break.

We keep copepods in culture at the Australian National Algae Culture Collection.

Three desmids

Desmids are a freshwater green algae with very pretty snowflake and star shapes under the microscope. Perfect for the top of your minimalist-sized Christmas tree.

The freshwater green algae Pediastrum.

Four king parrots

Alisterus scapularis

King parrots are the perfect colours for the season. Or are they? As seen in specimens from our Australian Wildlife Collection in Canberra[Link will open in a new window], their wing feathers reveal different patterns under UV light that only birds can see.

King parrots are glowing with festive cheer. Credit: JJ Harrison.

Five holly boughs

Ilex aquifolium (our Christmas Grinch)

Don’t deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la! Not in Australia, where holly has become an invasive species.

Holly is a traditional Christmas plant from the Northern Hemisphere, where it is native to southern and western Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.

Holly is our Christmas Grinch. It’s an invasive species that disturbs ecosystems in our temperate forests.

Holly was first introduced to Australia as an ornamental garden plant. Since then, it has become weedy in native bushland in temperate regions of southern New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.

The dark red berries you see nestled in the leaves are delicious to birds. They eat, then disperse the holly seeds across Australian temperate forests. Where holly becomes established, its weedy habit can suppress native vegetation, causing disturbance to the local ecosystem.

If you really want to decorate with holly, Australia has its own native look-a-like holly species named Alchornea ilicifolia. You can grow this species as an alternative garden plant across eastern NSW and Queensland. Unlike the weedy holly’s red berries, which appear in the Australian winter well before Christmas, Alchornea ilicifolia’s brown berries appear in the later months. Just in time for our Southern Hemisphere summer Christmas!

Deck the halls with alchornea ilicifolia instead, it’s a native holly-like species! Credit: Ethel Aardvark.

Six Christmas beetles

Anoplognathus sp.

Christmas beetles are an Australian group of scarab beetle species. The adults emerge around December, sometimes in very large numbers.

Adults have shiny elytra that range from light brown to iridescent green. Their larvae are fat, white grubs that feed on the roots of plants like eucalypt trees.

Image of Christmas beetle.
Nothing says Christmas more than a Christmas beetle.

Seven tinsels swimming

Xenolepidichthys dalgleishi

Deep under the sea, the Spotted Tinselfish is celebrating Christmas all year round with its violet and silvery tinsel-like scales. You can find this festive fish swimming at depths of 90 to 900 metres along Australia’s east and west coasts.

This spotted tinselfish specimen was found at 300 metres depth by scientists on board RV Investigator in Gascoyne Marine Park off Western Australia. Credit: Glenn Moore.

Eight fruiting mosses

Pleurophascum occidentale

This rare and delicate moss grows in the southwest of Western Australia. Originally found at Two Peoples Bay, it has since been discovered in many locations across the southwest. It forms loose mats of green that create a backdrop to its bright orange capsules full of spores.

Image of light green moss with bright orange berries.
Pleurophascum occidentale is a moss that reminds us of Christmas candy.

Nine blooming orchids

Corymborkis angusta (Christmas Island cinnamon orchid)

The Christmas Island cinnamon orchid (Corymborkis angusta) occurs only on Christmas Island where it grows in the rainforest's undergrowth. It’s an unusual-looking orchid. When it’s not flowering, people can mistake it for a young palm tree because of its dark green and pleated leaves. However in summer, the flowers bloom with a delightful Christmassy fragrance.

An orchid showing thin green palm-like leaves and a white flower with long thin petals.
The Christmas Island cinnamon orchid looks like a young palm. Credit: Heather Sweet.

Ten haematococcus

Haematococcus are single-celled green algae that live in freshwater.

“When the cells are happy, they are green and have a flagella for swimming around,” Ros says.

"But when they are stressed because of increased light or salinity, they form a cyst cell and turn pinkish-red due to a pigment called astaxanthin. Under the microscope, they look like Christmas baubles.

"Astaxanthin is a useful antioxidant. It’s also added to fish feed to turn the flesh of farmed salmon pink. And they can cause birdbaths to turn pink, hence their nickname ‘birdbath algae’," she says.

Microscopic image of Haematococcus cysts.
When placed in conditions they like, resting cysts of Haematococcus transform. They slowly turned from red to green and divide, with many flagellated cells forming in the cyst. The flagellated cells then burst out and swim around.

Eleven wompoo fruit doves

Ptilinopus magnificus

Wompoo fruit doves sit atop fruit trees and vines in Australia's tropical and subtropical rainforests, like glorious living Christmas stars. They’re festively adorned in a bright green plumage with a rich crimson belly and yellow accents throughout.

In parts of eastern Australia you might find them on Christmas morning gorging on tropical fruits. But they’re hard to spot in the canopy. It's more likely you’ll hear them calling “wompoo”, which is how this beautiful bird got its name.

Festively coloured Wompoo fruit doves sit atop fruit trees in our tropical and subtropic rainforests. Credit: cuatrok77 via Flickr. ©  CUATROK77PHOTOGRAPHER

Twelve Christmas bushes

Ceratopetalum gummiferum (NSW Christmas Bush)

Australia has its own Christmas tree – the NSW Christmas Bush. It blooms bright red and white in December. Its sepals, which are usually green on most flowers, turn bright pinkish red. These are framed by its beautiful delicate white petals. You’ll see it decorate the NSW coastline in festive colours seasonally each year.

Branch with pink flowers.
The perfectly timed red and white bloom of the NSW Christmas bush. Credit: Margaret R Donald.

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