There are many more species of macropods in Australia and New Guinea (67 species) than antelope in southern Africa (34 species).This makes them one of the world’s most successful radiations of mammalian herbivores occupying almost all available terrestrial habitats including burrowing and tree-living species. They form a Superfamily, Macropodoidea, in the Marsupialia and are the most diverse of this mammalian Subclass with a body size ranging from about 0.5 to 92 kg. With the exception of the bounding Musky Rat-kangaroo, all hop at speed and gain purchase through an elongated and robust fourth toe. Although many dinosaurs were bipedal, kangaroos are the largest known animals to hop. They have a forward facing pouch that fully encloses the pouch young until it is furred and starts to view the outside world by poking its head out of the pouch opening. Collectively they are known by the common name, macropod, referring to the long foot. Three Families are currently recognised and the majority of species are in Australia with some in New Guinea and offshore islands.
The sole representative of this Family is the
Musky Rat-kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon
moschatus) of north-eastern Queensland rainforests. This is the most
primitive of the macropods (it retains the first toe) and the only fully diurnal
species. It has an unspecialised gut and feeds mainly on fruit. It bounds rather
than hops and gives birth to multiple young.
This Family includes five species of Bettongs, four species of Potoroos (one
extinct), and the extinct Desert Rat-kangaroo. They are found only in Australia
in ranges that have been much reduced by colonisation and the introduction of
European farming practices, especially sheep grazing. Their populations remain
suppressed by introduced Red Foxes and domestic Cats. They are diminutive in
size ranging from 0.9 – 3 kg, the differentiation in the lengths of hind-limbs
and fore-limbs in not pronounced; the tail has prehensile abilities and the gut
though differentiated into a large diverticulum, a sacciform fore-stomach and a
small hind-stomach is less complex than the Macropodids. They can digest
cellulose with the assistance of micro-organisms in the fore-stomach but have a
diverse diet including fungi, roots, tubers, fruits, herbs, grasses and insects.
The mycophagy (fungus eating) plays an important role in forest health through
the distribution of fungi that assist trees in fixing nitrogen. They may also
have once suppressed shrubs that are now invasive in pastoral lands from which
the Potoroids are extinct. The Family includes the only burrowing species, the
Burrowing Bettong (Bettongia
lesueur). Most species are vulnerable to extinction and
Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous
gilberti), thought extinct, was rediscovered in one population in 1994. Two
species, the Burrowing Bettong and Woylie
(B. pencicillata), have been successfully reintroduced to large
properties in their former range where they are protected by a boundary of
This Family is the most diverse and widespread as it includes species in New Guinea. The Family is divided into a number of groups along generic and/or body size lines. These include:
The Hare-wallabies are small (< 5 kg), delicate-bodied wallabies typically
found in arid or seasonally arid tussock grasslands and woodlands. Two of the
four species of Lagochestes are extinct. The
Banded Hare-wallaby (Lagostrophus
fasciatus) occupies an uncertain taxonomic position and may represent the
remnant of a once diverse Sub-family of broad-faced kangaroos (Sthenurinae).
This monospecific genus contains the
Quokka (S. brachyurus), a small and somewhat taxonomically
anomalous wallaby. It is somewhat rotund with short hind feet and a scaly almost
naked tail. It is confined to the south-west of Western Australia and is
predominantly a browser unlike the majority of grazing Macropodids. There is
some speculation that it is a relict of a browsing group of macropods and shares
this character with another anomalous species, the
Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor).
The Pademelons are small, compact, short-tailed wallabies that typically
inhabit wet sclerophyll and rainforests from Tasmania to New Guinea. The genus
is equally diverse in New Guinea (4 species) and Australia (3 species) with one
of the latter, the Red-legged Pademelon
(T. stigmatica), in both regions. Reddish coloured fur is something of
a theme with red-bellied, red-necked and red-legged in the species common names.
They emerge from forest cover at night to eat succulent grasses and take some
The Nailtail Wallabies are so named because of a small, horny spur on
the end of the tail. The function of this spur has been the subject of much
speculation including a pivot for rapid directional change. Of these
attractively marked mid-sized wallabies, only the
Northern Nailtail Wallaby (O.
unguifera) remains abundant and relatively widespread. The
Bridled Nailtail Wallaby (O.
fraenata) is threatened and reduced to one small population but through a
successful captive breeding program it has been reintroduced to two locations at
the western margins of its original expansive eastern Australian range. The
Crescent Nailtail Wallaby (O. lunata) is extinct.
The Rock-wallabies are the most diverse Australian genus with 16 species.
Recognition of this diversity has come from the application of cytology and
molecular techniques in taxonomic investigations. Thus some similar looking
species along the Queensland coast are now recognised as separate species. Since
many populations are isolated, genetic analyses have investigated inbreeding
depression but found sufficient gene flow to maintain genetic variance. The
Rock-wallabies range in body size from the tiny 1-kg
Monjon (P. burbidgei) of the
Kimberley to the 12-kg Yellow-footed
Rock-wallaby (P. xanothopus) in the arid parts of south and eastern
Australia. The genus includes some of the most attractively furred species and
the Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby (P.
penicillata) was decimated by a fur trade that prospered from 1884-1914.
The habitat preference that gives them their common name is for rocky outcrops
and slopes, boulder piles, cliffs and gorges, and escarpments. Their ability to
hop up near vertical rock faces is legendary.
The six species of Forest Wallabies are confined to New Guinea. Their
taxonomic affinities to the Australian Wallabies are not well-defined but
molecular evidence suggests a separation about 10 million years ago. Their
behaviour and ecology in the wild is not well-studied but as the common name
suggests they are inhabitants of the forest floor. The curious characteristic of
these wallabies is that they curve their tail so only the tip touches the ground
while standing and feeding. They also use their forepaws regularly to manipulate
food for chewing by the permanent molars.
Tree-kangaroos represent a return to an arboreal existence from the
possum-like ancestor of kangaroos and their kind. Tree-kangaroos are more
diverse in New Guinea (8 species) than Australia (2 species) and inhabit lowland
and upland tropical rainforest. The hind-limbs are relatively short and the
fore-limbs are robust with strong claws to assist climbing and purchase in the
trees. A folivorous diet places the Tree-kangaroos as the austral equivalents of
Leaf-eating and Proboscis Monkeys in south-east Asia.
The division between the wallabies and kangaroos in the genus Macropus is
arbitrary and based on body size and an adult foot length of <250 mm. Wallabies
do not exceed 20 kg and include small species like the
Tammar Wallaby (M. eugenii)
and Parma Wallaby (M. parma)
of less than 5 kg. The nine species are collectively found across Australia with
one, the Agile Wallaby (M. agilis),
also in New Guinea; and the Toolache Wallaby (M. greyi) now extinct.
The species tend to rest in woodlands and then graze at night in adjacent
grasslands or grassy patches in the forest. The
Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor)
is more a browser and placed in its own genus. The species is relatively
secretive and has been remarkably resistant to urban encroachment on its habitat
unlike most of the other wallabies. The Agile Wallaby remains abundant across
northern Australia and is readily seen in urban reserves in Darwin and
The six species of large Kangaroos include the iconic
Eastern Grey Kangaroo (‘Skippy’) (M.
giganteus) and the Red kangaroo
(M. rufus) of the Outback. Eastern and
Western Grey (M. fuliginosus)
Kangaroos were only separated as species in the 1970s and neither is closely
related to the Red Kangaroo. The latter has stronger affinities with the less
well-known Wallaroo group of three species. The
Common Wallaroo (M. robustus),
a robust hill-dwelling species, is the most geographically widespread of all
macropods although it is absent from Tasmania. Least well-known is the
Black Wallaroo (M. bernadus)
which is the smallest member of this group and is found only on the Arnhem Land
escarpment. The species may have become marooned in this small geographic range
through past climate change. The other tropical species, the sociable
Antilopine Wallaroo (M.
antilopinus), is gracile and males vie with those of Red Kangaroos as the
largest living macropod.
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