Kangaroo Facts Get to Know These Fascinating Marsupials

kangroo leaping in the air

Kangaroo Facts and Insights into Australia’s National Animal

Kangaroos are iconic Australian animals that have captured the imaginations of people around the world. These unique marsupials are native to Australia and a few surrounding islands. They are known for their powerful hind legs, long tails, and pouches where they carry and nurse their young. But there is much more to kangaroos than these basic facts.

Kangaroo Taxonomy and Species

The term “kangaroo” is used broadly to refer to any of the 54 species in the Macropodidae family, which includes:

  • True kangaroos – The 4 largest species like the Red and Eastern Grey Kangaroo
  • Wallabies – About 30 medium-sized species
  • Wallaroos – 3 species that are intermediate in size between kangaroos and wallabies
  • Tree-kangaroos – 12 species adapted to arboreal life in trees
  • Pademelons and quokkas – Small, primitive kangaroo species

The Potoroidae family includes 10 additional species known as rat-kangaroos, potoroos and bettongs. So in total, there are over 60 distinct species that fall under the broad term “kangaroo”.

The name “kangaroo” itself comes from the Guugu Yimidhirr word “gangurru”, which referred to the eastern grey kangaroo. An oft-repeated story claims it actually meant “I don’t understand” in aboriginal language, stemming from a misunderstanding between Europeans and aboriginals, but this is an urban legend.

  • Adult Males – Often referred to as ‘bucks’, these robust kangaroos are also called ‘boomers’ or ‘jacks’. Each term reflects a common aspect of the male kangaroo’s behavior or size; for example, ‘boomer’ is indicative of their significant presence and size.
  • Adult Females – Female kangaroos are known as ‘does’. They are also called ‘flyers’ or ‘jills’, with ‘flyers’ perhaps referring to their ability to move quickly and gracefully across the Australian landscapes.
  • Young Kangaroos – Baby kangaroos are universally known as ‘joeys’. This term applies from birth until they leave the mother’s pouch. Joeys spend several months developing inside the pouch, gaining the strength and size needed to survive outside.
  • Groups – Kangaroos are social animals and are often seen in groups, which are aptly called ‘mobs’. A mob typically consists of a few to many kangaroos, and it serves as a protective measure against predators. The structure of a mob also facilitates social interactions and mating.
  • Colloquial Terms – ‘Roos’ is a friendly, Aussie colloquial shorthand used for both kangaroos and their smaller relatives, the wallabies. This term is often used in casual conversation and can refer to any species within the kangaroo family.

Distribution and Habitat

Kangaroo habitat

While kangaroos are strongly associated with Australia, several species also inhabit Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands. Within Australia, kangaroos have adapted to virtually every available habitat!

Kangaroos generally live in areas where they can access sufficient water. Despite their strong presence in arid regions, they are usually found close to water sources such as cattle water troughs, especially during drought conditions.

Many kangaroos live in protected areas such as national parks and reserves, which helps maintain their populations by providing refuge from hunting and habitat destruction. However, outside these protected areas, they can be subject to culling, particularly when they are perceived to compete with agricultural interests.

As urban areas expand into kangaroo habitats, sightings in suburbs and even cities have become more common. This has led to increased interactions between kangaroos and humans, which can sometimes result in conflict, particularly when it comes to traffic accidents.

Sadly, hunting and habitat loss following European colonization of Australia has driven several kangaroo species to extinction, with more now endangered. Protecting the remaining diversity of kangaroos is an important conservation priority.

Physical Characteristics

muscular red kangaroo

Kangaroos come in a wide range of sizes. The iconic red kangaroo is the largest living marsupial and stands nearly 2 meters (6 ft) tall, with males weighing up to 90 kg (200 lbs). At the other end of the spectrum, the musky rat-kangaroo weighs just 500 grams (1 lb).

All kangaroos have certain anatomical features in common:

  • Extremely strong, enlarged hind legs and feet for hopping
  • Long, thick, balancing tails that act as a “fifth leg”
  • Small front limbs that help with foraging and grooming
  • Forward-opening pouches in females to carry offspring
  • Complex, multi-chambered stomachs for digesting tough plant matter

Kangaroos are known for their incredible ability to jump. They can leap over 3 meters (10 feet) in height and more than 8 meters (25 feet) in distance in a single bound. This is due to their highly specialized hind legs and large, elastic tendons that store kinetic energy.

A kangaroo’s tail is not just for balance. It is robust and muscular, used almost like a fifth limb to support the kangaroo when it is standing upright or walking slowly. The tail propels and stabilizes them as they hop at high speeds.

Kangaroos are the only large animals to use hopping as their primary method of locomotion. This mode of movement is energy efficient for the size of the animal, helping them travel long distances in search of food and water in their often arid habitats. At slow speeds kangaroos awkwardly “crawl” using their hind legs and tail together – they cannot move them independently on land. But in the water, kangaroos are graceful swimmers and kick their hind legs alternately like humans.

Kangaroos can’t sweat, so they lick their forearms, where the blood vessels are close to the skin, allowing them to cool down effectively through the evaporation of saliva.

Female kangaroos have a pouch where their young (joey) develop and live until they are old enough to survive outside. The unusual fact here is that the pouch opens forward towards their heads rather than backwards. This positioning prevents the joey from being jostled too much when the mother is hopping at speed.

Kangaroos have molars that are capable of moving sideways, which is beneficial for grinding and chewing tough plant material like grass. As these teeth wear down, they are gradually replaced by new ones that move forward from the back of the mouth, a process that continues throughout their life.

Kangaroos have excellent hearing. They can swivel their large ears independently in different directions to pick up sounds, which helps them detect predators or other threats in their environment.


Kangaroo Fight

Kangaroos are social animals and typically live in groups called “mobs” that include one dominant male, several females and their offspring. These mobs can provide safety in numbers from predators. The social structure is usually flexible, and the size of a mob can vary greatly.

Male kangaroos are known for their “boxing” behavior during mating season. They actually do fight by leaning back on their tails and “boxing” each other with their strong hind legs in a form of kickboxing, rather than just using their forelimbs. This behavior helps establish dominance and mating rights. Serious fights involve powerful kicks with the clawed hind legs that can cause severe injuries.

Despite being land animals, kangaroos are also capable swimmers. They use their powerful hind legs to propel themselves through water, and swimming can be a means of escaping predators if necessary.

While many people believe kangaroos are nocturnal, they are actually crepuscular, meaning they are most active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk. During the hotter parts of the day, kangaroos rest in the shade to conserve energy and avoid the heat.

Similar to cows, kangaroos regurgitate their food and rechew it as part of their digestion process. This behavior, known as “chewing cud,” helps them break down tough, fibrous plant material more efficiently.

When a kangaroo senses danger, it will often thump its foot on the ground to warn other kangaroos in the vicinity. This behavior helps alert the group to potential threats, allowing them a chance to escape.

If threatened, a kangaroo may lead its predator into water. Standing submerged, the kangaroo may attempt to drown the attacker by holding it under water, using its forepaws in a surprising display of defensive behavior.

As herbivores, kangaroos spend most of their waking time grazing on grasses and browsing leaves and shrubs. Some species require very little drinking water and can get moisture just from eating green vegetation.

The kangaroo digestive system is highly specialized to extract maximum nutrients from tough, fibrous plants. Like cattle and other ruminants, they have complex multi-chambered stomachs and regurgitate and re-chew partially digested food to facilitate fermentation by gut bacteria.

Reproduction and Development

Young Joey in pouch

Kangaroo reproduction involves some fascinating adaptations. They are one of the few groups where females have three vaginas and two uteruses. After a gestation of just 31-36 days, they give birth to jellybean-sized, hairless embryos (also known as a ‘pinkie’) that crawl into the pouch and attach to a nipple to continue developing for several more months.

Amazingly, females become pregnant again just days after giving birth. But development of this second embryo remains suspended until the first offspring is weaned or lost. This allows near-continuous reproduction, with an average female raising 3 young every 2 years. At one time, a female may be nursing a tiny neonate in the pouch, an older joey that has left the pouch but still drinks milk, and carrying a dormant embryo awaiting its turn – a clever adaptation to unpredictable environments.

It takes a full year or more for joeys to become fully weaned and independent. Initially they are permanently attached to the nipple, but after a few months they begin taking brief excursions from the pouch to explore. Interestingly, the composition of the milk changes over time to meet the needs of the growing joey.

Kangaroos are endlessly fascinating animals with a suite of incredible adaptations that allow them to thrive in some of the harshest environments on Earth. From their amazing hopping abilities to their unique reproductive strategies, there is a lot more to these iconic marsupials than meets the eye. Hopefully this article has given you a newfound appreciation for the complex world of kangaroos. With greater understanding comes greater impetus to protect these special animals and ensure they continue hopping across Australia for generations to come.