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Updated on September 28, 2010

The kangaroo is a large marsupial (pouch-bearing animal) confined entirely to Australasia. Captain Cook was the first Eurpoean to observe the animal in 1770. There are 56 species. A male kangaroo stands from 6 to 7 feet; the female which carries the young in her abdominal pouch, is considerably less.

These animals can move at an exceedinly rapid pace, progressing in tremendous leaps from 10 to 20 feet. They are propelled mostly by their hind feet, but their tail is used to supply an added boost. The tail is also used for steering and balancing. When traveling at leisure, kangaroos usually jump 5 to 10 feet with each leap. When chased, they can jump more than 20 feet. The greatest known distance spanned by a kangaroo in a single leap was 27 feet. Female kangaroos, called flyers, can reach a speed of 25 miles an hour. Generally the females are faster than the boomers, or males.

In general, kangaroos are timid and shy, and they often attempt to flee from their enemies, instead of fighting them. If necessary, however, kangaroos defend themselves by biting and boxing. Their chief weapon is their clawed hind feet, which can inflict severe wounds.

The kangaroo stands on one side of the Australian Coat of Arms with the emu on the other. Interesting to note is that both animals are said to be unable to take a step backwards.

Physical Characteristics of a Kangaroo

The kangaroo's coat may be various shades of wine red, gray, or brown, or it may be combinations of gray, black, and yellow. Sometimes the coat is striped. In the red kangaroos the males are bright maroon with a gray face and white underparts. The females are smoky blue-gray with white. In the great gray kangaroos (M. giganteus) both sexes have gray fur that is sometimes tinged with reddish yellow.

The most distinctive features of the kangaroo are its long hind feet, powerful legs, and muscular tail, which may be more than 4 feet long. In comparison to its sturdy hindquarters the kangaroo's forelimbs are very small. Its rabbit-like head is also small but has a long snout. The large ears always stand erect.

There is no brief way of describing the difference between a kangaroo and a wallaby except to say that the first is larger than the second. An arbitrary rule is that a kangaroo has hindfeet more than 10 inches long.


The best-known of the kangaroos are the great grey (Macropus giganteus) and the red (Macropus rufus). The great grey or forester is up to 6 feet high, sometimes even 7 feet, with a weight of up to 200 pounds. Its head is small with large ears, its forelimbs are very small by comparison with the powerful hindlimbs and the strong tail is 4 ft long. The colour is variable but is mainly grey with whitish under parts and white on the legs and underside of the tail. The muzzle is hairy between the nostrils. The male is known as a boomer, the female as a flyer and the young as a Joey. The great grey lives in open forest browsing the vegetation.

The red kangaroo is similar to the great grey in size and build but the male has a reddish coat, the adult female is smoky blue, and the muzzle is less hairy. Unlike the great grey kangaroo it lives on open plains, is more a grazer than a browser, and lives more in herds or mobs, usually of a dozen animals.


Most kangaroos roam through the plains, open forests, and brush country. They travel in herds, called mobs, that are always moving about in search of grass and other vegetation to eat. During the day, kangaroos graze, bask in the sun, and swim in nearby rivers or streams. At night they lie on the ground to sleep.

The red is found all over Australia. The great grey lives mainly in eastern Australia but there are three races of it, formerly regarded as species: the grey kangaroo or western forester of the southwest; that on Kangaroo Island off Yorke Peninsula, South Australia; and the Tasmanian kangaroo or forester. The wallaroo or euro lives among rocks especially in coastal areas. It has shorter and more stockily built hindlegs than the red or the great grey.

Some kangaroos, called tree kangaroos, live in trees. Their feet are shorter and broader than those of other kangaroos, and their tail, used mostly for balancing, is thinner. Tree kangaroos can safely jump out of trees from heights up to 60 feet.

Pest Problem

Enemies of the larger kangaroos are few now that the Tasmanian wolf has been banished. The introduced dingo still claims its victims but that is shot at sight. The loss of natural enemies, the creation of wide areas of grassland and the kangaroo being able to breed throughout most of the year, has created a problem, especially for sheep graziers, in Australia.

Kangaroos feed mainly by night resting during the heat of the day. The red kangaroo, because it eats grass, has become a serious competitor with sheep, important in Australia's export economy. By creating grasslands man has helped the kangaroo increase in numbers. In turn the kangaroo tends to out-graze the sheep, for which the pastures were grown, not only through its increased numbers but by its manner of feeding.

Sheep have lower teeth in only the front of the mouth, with a dental pad in the upper jaw. Kangaroos have front teeth in both lower and upper jaw which means they crop grass more closely than sheep. At times, it is reported, they also dig out the grass roots. They can go without water for long periods, which suggests they were originally animals of desert or semi-desert, but where water is supplied for sheep kangaroos will, if not kept out, take the greater share.

Another problem is that kangaroos often bound across roads at night and collide with cars causing costly damage and endangering those in the cars.

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  • The red kangaroo, the largest of all kangaroos, may stand nearly 7 feet tall. It inhabits the grassy inland plains of Australia. Throughout the day it grazes on plant material. During the night it rests in large groups, often of a hundred or more animals.
  • The walleroo is a kangaroo of the Australian coastal mountains and rocky inland ranges, where it often uses caves for shelter.
  • The wallaby, a close relative of the kangaroo, resembles it in appearance and habits but is generally smaller.
  • The tree kangaroo inhabits rather inaccessible areas. When leaping from tree to tree, it uses its heavy tail to counter-balance its body.


The truth about kangaroo birth took a long time to be established. In 1629 Francois Pelsaert, a Dutch sea captain, wrecked on the Abrolhos Islands off southwest Australia, was the first to discover the baby in the pouch of a female wallaby. He thought it was born in the pouch. This is what the Aborigines also believed.

In 1830 Alexander Collie, a ship's surgeon on a sloop lying in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia, investigated the birth and showed that the baby was born in the usual manner and made its way unaided into the pouch. From then on various suggestions were put forward: that the mother lifted the newborn baby with her forepaws or her lips and placed it in the pouch, or that the baby was budded off from the teat.

In 1883 Sir Richard Owen, distinguished anatomist, came down heavily on the side of those who said the mother placed the baby in her pouch holding it in her lips, yet in 1882 the Hon L Hope had shown Collie to be correct. In 1913 Mr A Goerling wrote a letter to the Perth Western Mail describing how he had watched the baby make its way to the pouch with no help from the mother. It was not until 1923, however, that this view was generally accepted, when Dr WT Horn-day, Director of the New York Zoological Gardens, watched and described the birth.

Finally, in 1959-60, the whole birth process of the red kangaroo was filmed by GB Sharman, JC Merchant, Phyllis Pilton and Meredith Clark, at Adelaide University, setting the matter to rest for all time.


  • Merit Students Encyclopedia, Volume 10, P.F. Collier Inc, 1979. Page 279.
  • Pears Cyclopaedia, Twenty-Ninth Edition, 1926. Page 207
  • The International Wildlife Encyclopedia, B.P.C. Publishing, 1968. Volume 9, Page 1209.
  • More, Tell Me Why, Arkady Keokum, Hamlyn. 1967. Page 106.


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