Red Kangaroo: Australia’s largest native land mammal

Name(s): Red Kangaroo (Osphranter rufus)

Size: Up to 1.8m and 90kg.

Diet: Herbivore, mostly eats grasses but also trees, shrubs and forbs.

Habitat/range: The only kangaroo truly restricted to Australia’s arid interior.

Conservation status: Least Concern

Superpower: Indigenous mythology relates that the red kangaroo obtained water by magical means. Its aunt the mulga parrot fetched water long distances to them by night in special bags made of kangaroo skins.

Gettyimages 520278958 red kangaroo. Credit jami tarris
Red kangaroo. Credit: Jami Tarris/Getty Images

The red kangaroo is at the heart of Australia’s ecological identity. It is steeped in Indigenous culture, Australia’s largest native terrestrial land mammal, the largest extant marsupial, and the only kangaroo truly restricted to Australia’s arid interior.

How this large animal survives in the harsh desert environment comes down to its remarkable adaptations.

Red kangaroos pick and choose where they spend their time depending on the conditions. During hot summers they shelter all day under shady trees, emerging to feed in the cool evenings or after dark in hot weather. They know where the best feed is during dry times, along the open plains and flood-outs of creeks. Directly after good rains, red kangaroos spend most of their time in the woodlands where there is both shelter and food.

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But to survive the boom-and-bust nature of Australia’s arid interior, female red kangaroos go one step further than just selecting optimal habitat. They have the remarkable ability to cease breeding during droughts while still being able to suckle young already born. In this way, the mother does not lose her life expending energy continually breeding and trying to keep young alive. Once the rains come back, however, females promptly breed within weeks – a cycle that is optimal for the arid environment.

Red kangaroos are an important source of food for Indigenous Australians, but they also hold incredible cultural significance. In fact, according to Indigenous legends, the red kangaroo was one of the spiritual ancestors who in the beginning created the landscape and its wildlife, and who are repeatedly reborn within people. If for no other reason that than, the red kangaroo should get your vote.

Red kangaroo.
Red kangaroo. Credit: Jamie Lamb/Getty Images

And, instead of voting for the dingo, how about voting for the animal that helps to sustain them? Red kangaroos form a major component of dingo diets during droughts when other prey is scarce. The availability of red kangaroos as prey for dingoes during droughts reflects the ability of red kangaroos to survive through periods of low rainfall.

When red kangaroos die naturally or succumb to predation, their carcasses become a source of food for a plethora of scavengers who in turn help to recycle dead animal matter. In the Simpson Desert, for example, red kangaroo carcasses are fed on by at least 13 different vertebrate scavengers, including brown falcons, lace goannas, wedge-tailed eagles, military dragons, black kites, ravens and crows. A single red kangaroo carcass can also attract a diversity of insect scavengers including beetles, flies and ants. Due to their large size and relative abundances, no other native species in the arid zone of Australia has the capacity to support as many scavengers as red kangaroo carcasses do.

So red kangaroos have adapted and evolved to survive in our harsh arid interior, they are arguably one of the most important cultural species for Indigenous Australians, they are a source of food for large predators like dingoes, and their carcasses help sustain a plethora of other lifeforms. 

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