Australia is famous for its incredible animals – their amazing evolutionary attributes, their fearsome skills, their awesome abilities. The same might be said for the Australian sports teams currently swimming, swooshing and soaring to the top of the leaderboard at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. So, what’s in a name? We ask our scientists from the Australian Museum Research Institute to give us an insight into why Aussie team names represent the best of the best.

The Volleyroos (Beach volleyball)

red kangaroo
red kangaroo Image: Josh More
creative commons

Scientist: Dr Mark Eldridge, Principal Research Scientist, Terrestrial Vertebrates

Most amazing physical ability: Increases speed by travelling further with each hop, not increasing the number of hops. This not only allows kangaroos to travel faster but is highly energy efficient.

Why they outrun the rest: The largest of the living kangaroos, the Red Kangaroo can hop the fastest, jump the highest and the furthest. Routinely travelling at 20-25km/hr, Red Kangaroos can hop at speeds up to 60km/hr. They can leap to a height of 3m and can cover 3-8m in a single bound depending on speed.

Gold, silver or bronze?: Gold of course!

Red Kangaroo fact sheet

The Dolphins (Swimming)

common dolphin
common dolphin Image: flickr
© creative commons

Scientist: Dr Sandy Ingleby, Collection Manager, Mammalogy

Secret weapon: “Porpoising” – the classic behaviour of dolphins travelling at high speed close to the surface as they propel themselves out of the water in a series of parabolic leaps. It has been shown that at certain speeds (known as the crossover speed) it is energetically more efficient in terms of reducing drag on their bodies to be air-born rather than remain in the water. When travelling fast dolphins need to remain close to the surface in order to breathe more frequently.

Why do they out-swim the rest: Dolphins are among the fastest of all marine mammals. With streamlined, teardrop shaped bodies, tight skin and broad tail flukes that are able to generate strong propulsion, they can reach speeds of around 8 metres per second.

Gold, silver or bronze?: Gold of course – they use both morphological and behavioural adaptations to be the best.

Common Dolphin fact sheet

The Falcons (Badminton)

Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is one of the fastest birds of prey, swooping down at speeds of up to 300 km/h. Image: Nic Trott
creative commons

Scientist: Dr Leah Tsang, Collection Manager, Ornithology

Most special attribute: Fastest bird of prey; the Peregrine Falcon is arguably the fastest land animal in the world.

Why they're at the top of the food chain: Extraordinary powers of flight, and keen eyesight.

Gold, silver or bronze?: Gold.

Peregrine Falcon fact sheet

The Sharks (Men's waterpolo)

Grey Nurse Shark
Grey Nurse Shark. Image: Erik Schlögl
© Erik Schlögl

Scientist: Amanda Hay, Collection Manager, Ichthyology

Most impressive adaptation: Their scales called dermal denticles are tiny teeth-like projections. The scales have grooves along their length parallel to the direction of the water, this acts to reduce drag making them super-efficient swimmers. In previous Olympics, swimsuits that were worn where the fabric was based on shark skin were soon banned as they made the swimmers too fast!

Why they’re the boss of the water: The are the top predator in the ocean, equally feared and respected.

Gold, silver or bronze?: Definitely gold.

Shark myths and facts

The Opals (Women's basketball)

Boulder opal
Origin - Qld Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Scientist: Ross Pogson, Collection Manager, Mineralogy & Petrology

Most singular attribute: Australia provides about 95% of the world's precious opal. Small quantities of precious opal are found in Mexico, Brazil and the United States. It is a uniquely Australian icon – the State Gemstone Emblem of New South Wales and South Australia. Plus, a famous large opal was named the “Olympic Australis’’ because it was found during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Why they sparkle like no other precious stone: The opal’s scintillating performance gives flashes of colour. Precious opal is amorphous, consisting of a regular, three-dimensional framework of hydrated silica spheres. A process of diffraction and interference of light over the silica spheres produces a network of spectral colours we call play of colour. The size of the silica spheres determines which colours are seen.

Gold, silver or bronze?: Opal!

Opal fact sheet

The Kookaburras (Men's hockey)

individual found visiting level 4 of the Australian Museum around Sept 2008 Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Scientist: Dr Leah Tsang, Collection Manager, Ornithology

Most impressive adaptation: Using their large formidable bill for catching prey including snakes.

Why are they the “Kings of the Bush”: Their raucous and distinctive song, and because they are the world’s largest kingfisher (by weight).

Gold, silver or bronze?: Gold.

Kookaburra fact sheet

The Stingrays (Women's waterpolo)

Estuary Stingray, Dasyatis fluviorum
A Estuary Stingray feeding in the shallows at Hare Bay, Jervis Bay, New South Wales, 23 April 2014. Image: Sally Reader
© Australian Museum

Scientist: Amanda Hay, Collection Manager, Ichthyology

Most special attribute: Stingrays have one or two barbed and venomous spines on their tail used to defend themselves underwater from being eaten (predation).

Why they leave the others in their wake: They may look like an easy target but don’t mess with a fish with such fierce weaponry.

Gold, silver or bronze?: Gold – stealth and weaponry used to come out on top in a battle.

Black Stingray fact sheet