Why roos rule
Exquisitely adapted to their environment over millions of years and possessing unique and fascinating attributes, kangaroos deserve our respect and protection. Learn why kangaroos belong on the grassy fields of Australia, not the artificial grass soccer fields of America.
Types of Kangaroos
Indigenous to Australia, the kangaroo is a large marsupial — meaning the female carries her baby in her pouch — and a member of the Macropodidae family, named for animals that have large feet. This family includes 71 species, each of which not only has large feet and carries their young in the mother’s pouch, but also moves by hopping. The various species may differ in color, markings, physical attributes and geographical range, however.
When thinking of kangaroos, four species typically come to mind: the red kangaroo, the western grey kangaroo, the eastern gre∂y, and the wallaroo. This group is often referred to as “the great kangaroos” as they are larger in stature and more abundant than the others.
Four states in Australia permit the commercial killing of the great kangaroos. New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have “harvest quotas” for these gentle animals (additionally, hunting of wallabies occurs on the island of Tasmania.) Usually operating at night while the kangaroos are grazing on grasses and other plants, commercial hunters use spotlights, vehicles, guns and blunt force trauma to kill more than one and a half million kangaroos every year. Almost half a million joeys are killed each year after they’re found “in pouch” or “at foot” of shot females. They are considered “collateral damage” and not counted. Over a million more kangaroos are legally killed each year by farmers with “damage mitigation” permits issued by the government.
These are large animals, with some males standing nearly six feet tall and weighing up to 200 pounds. Grazing on the open, dry ranges of New South Wales, Southern Australia, Western Australia, and Queensland, these herbivores are capable of surviving with no surface water to drink for many months if they have green fodder to eat. Like the other great kangaroos, the red kangaroo generally grazes at night and rests during the day. Though the male’s coat is red brown in color, the females, called “blue flyers,” are actually a bluish-grey. Red kangaroos can live up to 23 years, but most do not, with many not surviving even a year or two.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo
Light grey to fawn in color, the eastern grey lives in scrubs and forested areas. There are two subspecies: Macropus giganteus, found in eastern and central Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and southeastern South Australia, and Macropus giganteus tasmaniensis, commonly known as the Tasmanian eastern grey kangaroo. Endemic to Tasmania, there are not many of the latter left. Like the other great kangaroos, the eastern greys are herbivores, favoring the young, green shoots of grasses. Male eastern grey kangaroos can reach nearly 150 pounds. Females are lighter and faster. A female eastern grey can travel at nearly 40 mph, the fastest recorded kangaroo speed. Over 700,000 eastern grey kangaroos are killed each year.
Western Grey Kangaroo
Light grey-brown in color, with darker feet, forepaws and tail-tip and lighter patches on the legs, these kangaroos have ranged over the entire southern half of Australia. However, they have become locally extinct in some areas due to the commercial kangaroo industry. A social species, western greys usually live in ‘mobs’ of up to 50 individuals. With a more diverse plant diet than some other kangaroos, they tolerate some plant toxins. Mature males are called ‘stinkers’ due to their curry-like smell. During the autumn and winter, male western grey kangaroos live in large groups away from the females and engage in threat-displays and fights to establish dominance. The winner has first access to females in the spring.
These smaller kangaroos live around rock outcroppings in the dry, northern half of the country and have adapted to surviving for long periods with minimal amounts of water. Wallaroos are mostly solitary and nocturnal. They occupy a relatively small home range close to water and feed on shrubs and grasses. Like the western grey, the wallaroo population has dropped to very low numbers due to commercial kills and they are considered locally extinct in many areas of Australia. Still, more than 100,000 wallaroos continue to be hunted annually.
In addition to “the great kangaroos” the other smaller macropod species include tree kangaroos and wallabies. The swamp wallaby is a true wallaby, but other ‘wallabies’ are really small kangaroos. The two smallest wallabies, the tamar and parma, are about 20 inches long from head to tail. Wallabies tend to differ from their larger cousins in that they have adapted to specific living conditions. For example, rock wallabies are able to jump up on large rock, while tree kangaroos have long forearms used to grasp trees when climbing. And then there are the subspecies of kangaroos that include rat-kangaroos, potoroos, and bettongs – all small enough to fit into one’s hand. Having acknowledged these other species, the following information pertains to “the great kangaroos.”
While native to Australia, the kangaroo also lives on some islands off the continent, including the Australian state of Tasmania and the country of New Guinea.
The large, stretchy tendons in a kangaroo’s hind legs act like giant springs. As these tendons strain and contract, they generate most of the energy needed to hop. The tail is also important, acting both as a balancing aid and a counterweight, propelling the animal into each leap. Though the specifics vary by species, gender and size, kangaroos usually hop at about 15 mph. However, they can achieve much higher speeds over short distances and can travel up to nearly 30 feet in a single hop. This energy-efficient way of travelling means they can cover vast distances in search of food and water.
Kangaroos are highly social and live in large groups of up to one hundred or more, called mobs. Each mob is led by a dominant “alpha” male who has fought for his position as leader and gained priority access to females for mating. Male kangaroos are called bucks, boomers, or jacks.
Female kangaroos, known as jills, typically give birth to one baby at a time. The newborn kangaroo, called a joey, is the size of a lima bean at birth, weighing less than half an ounce. Using her already clawed and well-developed forelimbs, she crawls upward through the mother’s fur, following the scent of saliva along a path licked by the mother, and into the pouch across the mother’s belly area. There, she attaches her mouth to a teat, which enlarges and holds the joey in place. After continuous attachment, at about 19 weeks the joey first lets go and starts to poke her head out of the pouch. Around 24 weeks of age she becomes more active and starts exploring the world and supplementing her diet of milk with grass. She continues to live “in-pouch” until, between seven and eleven months of age, she leaves the pouch and lives “at foot,” so-called because she rarely leaves her mother’s side and still nurses regularly. By 18 months of age the joey’s diet of grass, herbs and young leaves is providing complete nutrition.
Some amazing adaptations are evident in the adult female kangaroo’s physiology. She produces two types of milk at the same time, one for a youngster “in-pouch” and the other for an older joey living “at-foot.” In times of drought, she has the ability to suspend production of a fertilized embryo until environmental conditions are favorable for a joey’s survival. Still, even in the best of times, when food and water are plentiful, only 25% of joeys survive long enough to reach adulthood.
Australia is experiencing dramatic and significant climate change. Drought conditions since 2017 have dried up food sources and water in many regions, killing countless kangaroos and other animals. Some surviving animals lose their lives from insect-carried diseases that follow flash flooding. Additionally, a scientific study found the catastrophic fires of 2019-2020 killed more than a billion animals and damaged 30% of the country’s wildlife habitat.
Unfortunately, several factors suggest a dire situation for kangaroos. When extreme weather conditions exist, as they do now in the wake of the devastating impact of Australia’s droughts and fires, reproduction rates fall naturally as jills suspend embryonic growth until environmental conditions are favorable to sustain young life. Additionally, the government-backed commercial killing of kangaroos for their skins continues unabated. So, too, does the killing of kangaroos by farmers who consider them pests.