A red kangaroo bounding full tilt across a desert landscape in the softening, evening afterglow is a quintessentially Australian scene. While many of us may be familiar with red and eastern grey kangaroos, swamp wallabies, quokkas, and a few other relatively common and well-known macropod species – macropod means ‘large footed’ – most are unaware that there are nearly 60 Australian species (and many more subspecies) in the superfamily Macropodoidea. The mighty macropods have successfully occupied and thrive across the entire continent and its diverse terrestrial ecosystems – in the red centre, on snow-capped mountains, and mere minutes away from our busiest cities (sometimes right in the middle of them).
The diversity of habitats that macropods occupy is matched by their extraordinary variety of body sizes, life histories and ecologies. Eastern bettongs, long-nosed potoroos and other similar species feverishly dig holes searching underground for truffles to consume, and in doing so help to maintain critical symbiotic links between plants and fungi. Yellow-footed, brush-tailed, purple-necked, black-flanked, and other rock wallabies effortlessly hop over boulders, up steep rock faces, and along cliff-edges. Some kangaroos – Lumholtz’s and Bennett’s tree kangaroos – have made a living bouncing and crashing through the rainforests of North Queensland. There are pademelons, hare-wallabies – including those that are ‘spectacled’ – pretty-faced (whiptail), agile and red-necked wallabies…some wallabies (crescent, bridled and northern) are even nail-tailed. And there are several species of wallaroos and kangaroos too. Despite the desire of many to attain a quokka selfie, the antilopine wallaroo is of course Australia’s best macropod and my absolute favourite. I fell in love with these macropods while studying their ecology for my PhD and across northern Australia’s tropical savannas.
Vote for your macropod here!
Read about precious possums and vote for them here
Among many talents, some macropodid mothers are capable of providing different young – a joey in the pouch and a young at foot – with different nutritional compositions of milk through different teats, simultaneously, and they can press pause on the development of fertilised embryos (embryonic diapause) until environmental conditions are favourable to give birth and raise their joeys. Impressive!
The distinctive hopping gait of macropods has been extensively studied and is one of the most energy-efficient ways an animal can get around. The physiological and athletic abilities of some species are quite staggering. The sadly now extinct desert rat-kangaroo (oolacunta), occupied incredibly harsh desert landscapes, including gibber plains, and yet, as Hedley Finlayson attests, this pocket rocket was capable of evading men on horseback over an extraordinary distance and utterly oppressive conditions.
“Its speed for such an atom, was wonderful, and its endurance amazing … when we finally got it, it had taken the starch out of three mounts and run us 12 miles; all under such adverse conditions of heat and rough going, as to make it almost incredible that so small a frame should be capable of such an immense output of energy”.
We are so fortunate to share this land with the many marvellous, magical macropods. Of the currently 39 EPBC listed native mammal extinctions since European colonisation, tragically 13 (one third) are macropods. We must learn from the mistakes of the past to avoid any further extinctions – Gilbert’s potoroo and the Victoria River District’s nabarlek are critically endangered, and a further 11 species/subspecies are endangered. So hop to it and throw your support behind the marvellous macropods!
The nominees for most marvellous macropod are:
Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilbertii), Western Australia
One of the world’s most fungi-dependent mammals, they “came back from the dead” after being believed extinct from not being recorded for 120 years.
Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi), Queensland
They climb trees by gripping them with their powerful forelimbs and claws and pushing up with their hindlimbs, and yes, like other kangaroos they’re capable of hoping, even high up in trees or between trees on the ground.
Woylie (Bettongia penicillata), Western Australia, South Australia
Their tails are prehensile, which means they can pick up and carry objects (like grass and branches) to build their nests.
Yellow-footed rock-wallaby (Petrogale xanthopus), South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland
Genetic analysis has found that there’s actually two subspecies: Petrogale xanthopus xanthopus in SA and NSW and Petrogale xanthopus celeris in south-west Queensland.
Quokka (Setonix brachyurus), Western Australia
They’re one of the smallest wallaby species in Australia and, having little fear of humans, often approach people closely.
Eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi), southeastern Australia
It builds beautiful spherical nests on the ground, made from grass and lined inside with fibrous bark. It gathers nesting material with its forepaws, bundles it up, and transports the bundle in a curl of its long tail.
Red-necked pademelon (Thylogale thetis), eastern Australia
A cautious animal with a distinctive reddish neck and shoulder region, the red-necked pademelon will make loud warning thumpings with their hind legs when alarmed.
Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), eastern Australia
The swamp wallaby has a distinctive colouration: a dark grey/brown coat, rusty coloured chest and base of ears, light coloured cheek stripe, and often a white tipped tail.
Brush-tailed rock-wallaby (Petrogale penicillata), eastern Australia
These are highly agile animals thanks to their compact, muscular build, long and flexible tail used for balance, and their well padded and rough textured feet providing traction.
Western grey kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus), across southern Australia
Female western greys are quite dainty, but males can only be described as boofy, with big heads and Roman noses.
Antilopine wallaroo (Osphranter antilopinus), northern Australia
They display a characteristic swelling of the nose above their nostrils, which likely helps them regulate their temperature in the hot climate.
Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus), southeastern Australia
As you might expect the long-nosed potoroo has a long, tapering nose! The length of the hind foot is shorter than that of the snout, which has a naked patch of skin that extends onto it from the nose.
Polling to determine the finalists of Australian Mammal of the Year is now closed. The Top Ten finalists will be announced on Monday 15 August and final voting for the Mammal of the Year will begin!
Euan Ritchie is an applied ecology and conservation researcher at Deakin University. He has been fascinated by Australia’s mammals for as long as he can remember, and has been researching their ecology and conservation across this continent for over two decades. He tweets at @EuanRitchie1.
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