Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby: A long tail of bouncing back

Name(s): Yellow-footed rock-wallaby (Petrogale xanthopus) also known as the ring-tailed rock-wallaby; subspecies Petrogale xanthopus xanthopus and Petrogale xanthopus celeris.

Size: Tail length approx. 675 mm. Adult weight 5-9kg (females) and 7-12kg (males).

Diet: Herbivore. Grazing is preferred but will switch to browse during dry times. Have a sweet tooth for native oranges.

Habitat/range: Patchy distribution in semi-arid South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland. Found in gorges, rocky ranges and outcrops.

Conservation status: Vulnerable (P. x. xanthopus and P. x. celeris; EPBC classification).

Superpower/fun fact: Their scientific name translates to yellow-footed rock weasel. They get most of their water from feed; adults need little free water and can travel kilometres to drink.

A yellow-footed rock-wallaby on a rocky outcrop
All the colours of the yellow-footed rock-wallaby can be found in the rocky outcrops where they live. Credit: Shannon Kleemann.

Yellow-footed rock-wallabies are without a doubt the most stunning of Australia’s macropods. This true-blue Aussie’s fur is covered in a striking combination of colours and patterns, but their drought tolerance and ability to out-survive competitors prove that they are so much more than a pretty face. One of the few rock-wallaby species found doing it tough in the semi-arid zone, it’s not uncommon for yellow-foots to battle temperatures of 45°C and an annual rainfall of 15mm.

As the name suggests, yellow-footed rock-wallabies like living on rock. They lay down roots wherever they can, including low boulder fields surrounded by open plains of red soil, bands of rock atop somewhat-green hills, deep gorges, and steep mountain faces of orange rock.

A juvenile yellow-footed rock-wallaby held in someone's arms
A juvenile yellow-footed rock-wallaby. Credit: Lauren Werner.

While in captivity, the bright and contrasting colours of their fur may seem like a bizarre camouflage choice, but in their natural habitat it makes perfect sense. Here, the grey, yellow and orange hues match the colours of the rocks. Even their tail stripes blend in, imitating shadows cast by rocky-overhangs, cracks and crevices. Blending seamlessly with their environment, often it’s only their movement as they glide away over the rocks and steep slopes, that gives them away.

If you are lucky enough to stumble upon a rock-wallaby hot-spot, you may be surprised to find a dozen faces peering down at you. Yellow-foots are a curious bunch, and although they might thump their feet angrily to warn others of your approach, they usually don’t move too far away. Keep an eye out for the males around town though, as yellow-foots are the largest rock-wallaby species and these guys can get pretty big, with muscles coming out of muscles. Always a big hit with the yellow-foot ladies!

Charisma isn’t lacking in these little folks. Up close you can appreciate their long eyelashes, stark white cheek stripes, and patches of copper-coloured fur situated like eyeshadow. The adults are one thing, but the pouch young are on another level of cuteness. With all the same colours and markings as the adults, pouch young are an adorable little package of oversized ears and feet.

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The ears of yellow-footed rock-wallabies are much larger than those of other rock-wallaby species, an adaptation for heat dispersal. This isn’t the only arid-adapted superpower they have though. Adults don’t need access to permanent water sources for most of the year and are able to get most of the moisture they need from the vegetation they eat or by licking the rocks on a dewy morning. Their den-sites, formed by overhangs, caves and boulders crevices, provide them with a much-needed refuge from environmental extremes. The dens are much cooler and have higher humidity than the ambient climate enabling them to shelter from the heat, conserve energy, and power up for their next expedition. Small plants that grow high up within the rocks are accessible mostly only to yellow-foots and not those pesky competitors such as euros, feral goats, and rabbits. During long periods of drought this also enables the rock-wallabies to out-survive all these other species.

A young yellow-footed rock-wallaby held in someone's hands
A young yellow-footed rock-wallaby fluttering their eyelashes. Credit: David Taggart.

The yellow-foots’ complex rocky shelters are also vitally important for evading predators. Foxes have predated masses of yellow-foots causing some colonies to become locally extinct and decreasing their overall abundance. But in South Australia, the yellow-footed rock-wallaby was saved by the Operation Bounceback program. This program has used baiting and other control methods to reduce predation and competition on yellow-foots, allowing these classic Aussie battlers to thrive once again.

As drought becomes more frequent and more severe with climate change, food source availability is likely to decrease and the seasonal rainfall which they rely on will become less dependable. The stress this will put on yellow-foots is still to be determined, but no doubt these tough little guys will battle on however they can.

Beautiful, strong, agile, charismatic, don’t rely on permanent water, and can out survive their competitors, talk about a jack-of-all-trades! If you’re wondering which Australian mammal to pick this year, vote for yellow-footed rock-wallabies as your #1! A true-blue Aussie battler who fought their way back from extinction.

Three yellow-footed rock-wallabies in green vegetation
Yellow-footed rock-wallabies showing off their striped tails in greener habitat. Credit: Shannon Kleemann.

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