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[ma crO pod' uh dE] the second-largest family of marsupials, with 11 genera and at least 54 species, including kangaroos, wallaroos, and wallabies
Macropod is the Greek word for "long foot," which is appropriate for this family since most kangaroos and their cousins are distinguished by their powerful back legs with long feet, each of which is armed with at least one very sharp and dangerous claw. Most kangaroos also have a long, heavy tail (which can be up to four feet long on a red or gray kangaroo) that is used for balance when hopping and for support when standing upright. Some of the smaller kangaroos, such as the tree-kangaroos, have much smaller tails and broader feet.
All macropods have a small head compared the body, a pointed snout, and large ears that stand straight up.
The red kangaroo, the largest of the family, averages six feet in height and about 100 pounds in weight for adult males, with adult females being markedly smaller. The smallest kangaroos are only about a foot or so long and weigh but a few ounces.
Almost all macropods are found in Australia, with a few species also found on New Guinea and a few nearby islands; there are no members of this family outside of those areas, however.
Kangaroos are found in a variety of habitats. Antelope kangaroos are most plentiful in the plains of northern Australia, red kangaroos are most common in the deserts and dry grasslands of central Australia, and gray kangaroos are found in the grasslands and forests of eastern and southern Australia. Many species of wallaroos make their homes in dry, rocky hills, and tree-kangaroos make their homes in forests.
Behavior and Habits
All of the larger kangaroos spend their entire lives on the ground, but some smaller species spend at least some time in trees.
While most commonly seen in pairs or family groups, most kangaroos will come together into larger groups (called mobs) when food is plentiful. Individual kangaroos without a mate will generally travel alone.
Most kangaroos are more active at night than during the day, but some feed in the early morning and late afternoon.
All kangaroos are herbivorous, feeding on a variety of plant material depending on geographic location and food availability.
Where the climate is moderate kangaroos will breed throughout the year. In dry regions they will only breed when food is plentiful.
A baby kangaroo (called a joey) is born after a gestation period of about a month, but the birth will be delayed if the mother still has a joey in her pouch. Born naked, blind, and almost completely helpless, the one-inch-long baby uses its forepaws to crawl unaided from the birth canal up into the mother's pouch, where it attaches itself to a teat and begins feeding. The joey will complete its development inside the mother's pouch, and will not leave the pouch until 6 to 8 months of age. The youngster will finally leave the safety of its mother at about 10 months of age. Because kangaroos can and do breed frequently it is not unusual for a mother kangaroo to have three babies in her care at one time -- one in the uterus, one in the pouch, and one out of the pouch but still semi-dependent on her for food and safety. Because of this, a mother kangaroo can actually produce two different kinds of milk at the same time -- one for the active joey and another for the newborn in her pouch.
Kangaroos can live up to 6-8 years in the wild.
A female kangaroo is called a doe, flyer, or jill; a male buck, boomer, jack, or old man.
The powerful hind legs of a kangaroo enable it to hop at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, and to leap over obstacles up to six feet high. When moving quickly it is far more efficient for a kangaroo to hop than walk, but when moving slowly it will usually walk on all four legs.
Most kangaroos can only move both back legs together, rather than one at a time. Kangaroos are also incapable of walking backwards.
The same hind legs that allow a kangaroo to hop also allow it to put up quite a fight when necessary. Most predators shy away from an adult kangaroo because it can deliver a blow with its hind feet powerful enough to knock out just about any animal out. What's more, most kangaroos have a very sharp claw on each hind foot that can disembowel even large animals.
All kangaroos have good eyesight, but they only respond to moving objects. They also have excellent hearing, and they can swivel their ears in all directions to pick up sounds.
Kangaroos can survive on very little water, and, if necessary, can go for months without taking a drink.
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This page was last updated on June 19, 2018.