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Rufous hare-wallaby
The Rufous Hare-wallaby reached near extinction on the mainland but secure populations are found on offshore islands in Western Australia. (Image: © Garrie Douglas At A Glance Pty Ltd)
Habitat map of Shark Bay region
Habitat map of Shark Bay showing Bernier Island to the north-west. (Image: www.sharkbay.org)

General information

Kangaroos are marsupials and belong to the Family Macropodidae (i.e. big feet) that is grouped with the Potoroidae (potoroos, bettongs, rat-kangaroos) and Hypsiprymnodontidae (musky rat-kangaroo) in the Super-Family, Macropodoidea. This comprises around 50 species in Australia and a dozen or more in New Guinea.  Some of the smaller species, such as Yellow-footed Rock-Wallabies, Burrowing Bettongs, accompanied Pig-footed and Golden Bandicoots, Bilbies and possibly Hairy-nosed Wombats into extinction with the advent of pastoralism. However, the largest species remain in much of their original range with the grey kangaroos expanding inland as grazing habitat increased and coastal habitat was lost in clearance for agriculture. The defining feature of the kangaroo family is that they are the largest vertebrates to hop (both currently and from what we know from palaeontology).


Two of the four species of Hare-wallabies that were identified at European colonisation of Australia are extinct. The only species which retains a broad geographic range is the Spectacled Hare-wallaby which also has a small population is southern New Guinea. The genus was once common in the deserts and tropics and south-west of Western Australia. Pastoralism and the introduction of livestock grazing and concomitant changes in fire management and release of rabbits, foxes and cats have wrought a devastating impacts on the attractive small wallabies. A characteristic, emphasised in the Spectacled Hare-wallaby, is the rufous fur around the eye. The Hare-wallabies have long feet with long claws but the fore-limbs are very delicate and short.



Mala (Rufous Hare-wallaby)

Lagochetes hirsutus bernieri ('Bernier's shaggy hare dancer')


Best place to see

Bernier Island, Western Australia

Bernier and nearby Dorre Island are part of the World Heritage area of Shark Bay. Bernier Island was named after Pierre Francois Bernier, an astronomer on the Geographe expedition of 1801 by the French. The island is a nature reserve and only accessible by boat. Visitors cannot stay on the island but can make a day visit. Open fires and pets are not permitted.  Access is from Denham, 340 km from Carnarvon and 410 km from Geraldton. Commercial flights operate to Shark Bay and airfare and accommodation packages are available.



Unusually for macropods, female Rufous Hare-wallaby (1.7 kg) may be slightly larger than males (1.6 kg). The Rufous Hare-wallaby is one of the smallest of the Macropodidae and interesting the island populations are larger than the Tanami Desert population on the mainland. The fur is long, hence the 'hirsute' in the species name, and has an overall sandy to grey-brown hue with a dark grey head. The orange ring around the eyes is indistinct unlike the Spectacled Hare-wallaby. The Mala has long feet with long triangular-shaped claws and short delicate forelimbs.





Foraging behaviour



Reproductive behaviour

The Mala has a short gestation period and pouch live is on average 124 days. This allows for the production of up to three young in a year with continuous breeding. In the wild, one or two young per year are most likely. Embryonic diapause is found and there is no seasonality in breeding provided conditions sustain lactation in females. Sexual maturity in females occurs within their first year and in the second year for males. Even so the species is not sexually dimorphic and the later maturity of males is not a function of attaining a larger body size. The sex ratio of pouch young is near parity (1:1) but dispersal in males may lead to higher mortality and a female bias in the adult population.


Most observations on the behaviour of Mala have been made in captive colonies housed in Alice Springs. Females were generally tolerant of each other but occupy individual squats (shallow depressions the Mala digs out) under tussock grasses. Male-male interactions were brief and included fights including pawing, cuffing and kicks from the side or while airborne, and chases. The most intense aggression, leading to severe injury in closed captive groups, was between adults and juveniles suggesting there may be forced dispersal of the latter in the wild.


Male-female interactions were common and typical of macropods small and large. Males checked the reproductive status of females early in the evening by sniffing at the pouch and cloaca. Females reacted by moving away or falling on their side and kicking out with their hindfeet at the male if unresponsive. Males attempted mountings from the rear and if the female moved away or kicked (from the side) at them they often continued to pursue the female while emitting loud repetitive clicking vocalistions.


Social organisation

Mala are nocturnal emerging from their squats under tussocks in the evening and returning before dawn. They use several squats which are only shared by females and their dependent offspring (young-at-foot). Male home ranges are larger than those of females and overlap several females from observations in large enclosures and post-release data for reintroductions (e.g. to Francois Peron National Park). Captive observations suggest a degree of hierarchical organisation in both females and males in terms of access to resources. However, whether this is an artefact of captivity or exists in wild populations remains to be determined. There is likely a degree of competition both within and between sexes but with the broad diet of Mala and the presumed abundance of shelter sites, it is likely than most competition is amongst males for access to oestrous females. The lack of pronounced sexual dimorphism suggests that this in by opportunity and persistence rather than morphological advantage.



Further readings

Bridie A, Hume ID, Hill DM (1994) Digestive-tract function and energy requirements of the Rufous Hare-Wallaby, Lagorchestes hirsutus. Australian Journal of Zoology 42, 761-774.

Hardman B, Moro D (2006) Importance of diurnal refugia to a hare-wallaby reintroduction in Western Australia. Wildlife Research 33, 355-359.

McLean IG, Lundie-Jenkins G (1993) Copulation and associated behaviour in the rufous hare-wallaby, Lagochestes hirsutus. Australian Mammalogy 16, 77-80.

Richards JD, Short J, Prince RIT, Friend JA, Courtenay JM (2001) The biology of banded (Lagostrophus fasciatus) and rufous (Lagorchestes hirsutus) hare-wallabies (Diprotodontia: Macropodidae) on Dorre and Bernier Islands, Western Australia. Wildlife Research 28, 311-322.

Short J, Turner B (1992) The distribution and abundance of rufous hare-wallabies, Lagostrophus fasciatus and Lagorchestes hirsutus. Biological Conservation 60, 157-166.