Kangaroos and wallabies – the Nations Icons

I was first introduced to the world of macropods in 1975 when I joined the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service as a photographer and promoter of nature conservation. However it was not until mid 1983 after leaving to travel Australia that my real attraction to this wonderful group of animals took hold. I had spent several glorious weeks photographing Yellow-footed Rock Wallabies and Common Wallaroos and during this time developed a deep respect for these animals. The artful secrecy of the wallabies and the amazing agility of the wallaroos were the real clinchers.  Since then I have been quite besotted by these Australian icons, and as more than a casual observer.  I have photographed most of the fifty recognised species, we have published numerous books on macropods.  Here is a brief introduction to the group and the conservation issues that surround it, I trust it ignites your passion.  Kangaroos and Wallabies do need a fan club because many are now threatened species.

More below



There are three families of marsupials commonly referred to as macropods. The Musky Rat-kangaroo of the Hypsiprymnodontidae family, and the potoroos and bettongs of the Potoroidae family, which are small, omnivorous macropods. The third, the Macropodidae family includes the more familiar herbivorous kangaroos and wallabies.

Fossil evidence suggests Australia’s macropods evolved from possum-like animals. As they abandoned the treetops for the continent’s expanding grassland habitats, most developed features more suited to open terrain.

While various models were being tried and tested on the evolutionary roadway, a body plan emerged that became standard equipment for a typical Australian macropod. It included short fore limbs, powerful hindquarters and long hind feet that gave these marsupials a distinctive upright stance and a two-footed hopping gait. However, not all macropods developed the size or features needed for a life in the open. Several species still rely on densely vegetated habitats for food and shelter, and their compact bodies retain features more commonly found in modern day possums.

What’s the Difference between Kangaroos and wallabies?
Kangaroo is a general term for large grazing macropods. It also is used as a name for the Red, Eastern Grey and Western Grey Kangaroos. Wallaroos are basically kangaroos that live in hilly or rocky country. They have large, bare, black noses. Wallaroos have a distinctive upright stance with shoulders thrown back, elbows tucked into the sides and wrists raised.

Wallaby is a common word used to distinguish medium-sized macropods from larger kangaroos. Wallabies weigh less than 25 kilograms and, being smaller, most rely on the protective shelter of habitats with dense undergrowth.

Kangaroos, Wallaroos and Typical Wallabies
Kangaroos, wallaroos and wallabies belonging to the genus Macropus are Australia’s most common and easily recognised macropods. These adaptable, energy efficient herbivores are also the most diverse, abundant and widespread group of marsupials. Several of the open range species have increased in number and distribution in the past 200 years with the grazing industry providing additional sources of food and water.

Living with the Mob
Many of these macropods live in extended family groups within large mobs. A group usually consists of a dominant male, several females and their young. Young males of breeding age tend to form separate groups, while battle-worn old males often choose to live alone. Adult males challenge one another to establish their rank in the mob hierarchy. The higher a male’s status, the more females will mate with him. Sparring involves holding on, raking an opponent’s head and chest with sharp claws and kicking with the hind legs.

Even the most solitary species sometimes feed in pairs and family threesomes like the Black-gloved Wallaby, or, in the case of Red-necked Wallabies, more than 30 individuals may gather at a prime feeding site.

Identifying Large Macropods in the Wild
Identifying a macropod species in the wild takes practice, and a good field guide is invaluable. Use the distribution maps in the guide to determine the different species that occur in any particular region, then eliminate species by comparing them to your sighting on the basis of: preferred habitat; stance and hopping posture; size; shape and size of body parts; behaviour;  colour and distinctive markings.

Posture and Gait
A quick glimpse of a startled macropod fleeing to safety doesn’t offer much time to observe details of its appearance; however, its hopping gait and posture can offer clues to its identity. It pays to note the length of stride, frequency and height of hops, and the position of the head and arms in relation to the torso. The Red Kangaroo and Whiptail Wallaby have long legs set well back on the body so the fore body tends to be lower than the arched back. The shorter legged Agile Wallaby and Eastern Grey Kangaroo have a shorter stride, and lower trajectory. While both have an upright hopping posture, the position of the forelimbs is quite different.

Macropod conservation
Issues like fires, feral animals, habitat destruction for farming and urban development and, in some areas quite severe road carnage, are some of the major conservation issues surrounding macropods in Australia. These issues effect all macropods and some, like the Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby, the Mala, the Black-gloved Wallaby and Quocka are also on endangered lists.    From my experience, the people I meet are generally unaware that there are 50 species of macropod in Australia; they are unaware of the lesser know endangered groups of macropods, yet they are aware of the issues of culling and harvesting that surround three species (the Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos, Red Kangaroos and the Common Wallaroo). Few people know that the Bennett’s Wallaby and the Tasmanian Potaroo are harvested on King and Flinders islands off Tasmania.

While culling and harvesting of wild populations attract media attention the multifaceted issues that surround these activities are insufficiently debated.  Proponents of ‘farming’ which applies more to the intentional managed farming (as one would a herd of sheep) argue that the soft-footed macropod causes no damage to the environment as do the cloven hooves of sheep and cattle.

Harvesting, a practice that is legal with permits in some areas of Australia is managed by each of the State Authorities under strict government guidelines.  Culling, which can be linked to harvesting, as the activity is usually performed by licensed professional shooters, may be effected when animals have increased in numbers and, as a result, are deemed to be causing environmental damage or animals have formed large mobs and entered urban areas supposedly threatening public safety; an example of this would be the Canberra fires and habitat clearing which  drove big mobs of roos into Canberra resulting in the very controversial ‘Canberra Cull’.

Each of these situations, in my opinion requires information dissemination, considered debate and active conservation practices.

Here are some references that may help with your thoughts on these matters:

Firstly an article in Australian Geographic’s online publication.   Important to read the comments on this blog.

Secondly a link to the Governments ‘Wild harvest of Australian native animals’ policies.

Thirdly  ‘The Think Tank For Kangaroos’ site 

There are fifty species of macropods in Australia and that the harvesting and culling issues are representative of three, many of the remaining forty seven are endangered as a result of land clearing and feral animal infestations. Have a look at our Wild Australia Australia Guide: Kangaroos & their relatives, it features all of the fifty species. We also have posters and kangaroo story books for children.

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