101 Facts – Marsupials!
…Amazing Animal WebBooks by IP Factly
Journey to Australia
Reproduction & Birth
Some Lesser Known Species
Some baby animals are born all covered with fur and with their eyes open, ready to take on the world. Others, however, are helpless and need to be carried in their mother’s arms, on her back or in a special pouch. Only a few species of animals have pouches, though, like kangaroos and koalas, and they are so special that they have their own group. They are called marsupials.
The Mob of Kangaroos by Wayne Butterworth
Marsupials are mammals – they give birth to live young.
Marsupialia is the infraclass of pouch-carrying mammals. In fact, the name “marsupial” comes from the Latin word “marsupium” which means “pouch”.
Joey gymnastics by Allan Henderson
Marsupials are also called metatherians which means “changed beasts”, whereas the rest of the mammals bearing live young are called eutherians or “true beasts”.
There are only over 300 species of marsupials, 70% of which can be found in Australia, New Guinea and the nearby Pacific islands. The remaining 30% can be found in South, Central and North America.
In Australia and New Guinea, marsupials were the only mammals, which is why they are more numerous and more diverse, ranging from over 2 inches (5 centimeters) to over five feet (1.5 meters) long.
The skull of marsupials differs from other mammals by having a large face area and a small brain case. The back part of the jaw is also turned inward instead of outward.
Marsupials have more teeth than other mammals. However, whereas other mammals have two sets of teeth, baby teeth and permanent teeth – marsupials replace just some of their teeth.
Most marsupials are herbivores, eating grass and various plant parts. A handful, however, are carnivores, with 75% of their diet comprised of meat.
Marsupials from Australia – Photo taken at the Lisbon Zoo by Alfonsopazphoto
Mammals are believed to have first appeared around 300 million years ago. The first mammals were known as Theriiformes and, over time, evolved into Therians.
During the Jurassic Period, around 160 million years ago, mammals became divided into three groups – the metatherians, the eutherians and the prototherians, or egg-laying mammals. Marsupials came from the group known as metatherians.
The earliest known marsupial is the Sinodelphys which is believed to be 125 million years old. It was a tree-dweller that was less than 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and its fossil was discovered only in 2003 in China.
Kangaroos at the Tower Hill by Nick Higgins
Marsupials began their journey to Australia when the continents looked very different than they do today. Marsupials are believed to have first appeared in northern China, which at the time was part of the continent Laurasia. From China, they moved to North America – which was also part of Laurasia.
Around 60 million years ago, some marsupials moved to South America. At this point, South America was still connected to North America. However, shortly afterward, North and South America split. The marsupials in South America thrived whereas the marsupials in North America became extinct due to competition with other mammals.
From South America, many marsupials traveled to Antarctica, to which it was still connected. From Antarctica, they are believed to have floated to Australia on driftwood and other vegetation wandering the ocean’s currents. Antarctica was separated but not yet too far away.
Wallabies, Taronga Zoo, Sydney by Wendy Harman
Marsupials reached Australia about 50 million years ago. By this time, the eutherians were already dwindling and so the marsupials thrived, they became the dominant mammals and gradually, the eutherians became extinct.
The remaining marsupials in South America also thrived, and when North and South America rejoined about 3 million years ago, a few of them moved back to North America where they continued to evolve.
A pouch is a fold of skin with a single opening. It can be found in the females of all marsupials and in one species, even in males, covering the nipples.
In some species, the pouch opens forward or up while in others, the pouch opens backward or down. Larger species usually have their pouches on the front while smaller ones who live underground have their pouches on their backs, to prevent them from filling up with dirt while they are digging.
Wallaby joey face in pouch by Benjamint444
In most species, the pouch is a permanent feature. Some species, however, only have temporary skin folds which appear when they give birth and disappear once the baby is fully developed.
Marsupials with front pouches that open upward, like kangaroos, lick their pouches clean before birth, which is usually a sign that they are close to giving birth. Others, who are unable to clean their pouches, secrete a special liquid that cleans up the pouch.
Marsupials can control the temperature inside their pouches, which they must since their babies cannot control body temperature on their own. Usually, the temperature inside a pouch is between 86 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30 to 32 Celsius) which is about as hot as a summer day on the beach.
Joey in pouch by Geoff Shaw
Female marsupials have two full sets of reproductive systems, including two reproductive openings and canals. When they are ready to give birth, a third canal forms, called the birth canal, through which the fetus passes. This canal can remain open after the first birth, or closed until the next birth.
Male marsupials, in turn, have forked reproductive organs with two ends instead of just one, to accommodate the females’ double reproductive systems. This organ is used solely for reproduction and is not connected to the urinary tract.
Female marsupials usually give birth to just one baby at a time, but they can be permanently pregnant! This means that once the baby has left one uterus to go into the pouch, another one can start developing in the other uterus. A female marsupial can be weaning, nursing and pregnant all at the same time.
Female marsupials can also delay their pregnancy, which is called “dispause”. They usually do this when food is scarce.
During pregnancy, a female marsupial develops a membrane called a “yolk sac”, which delivers nutrients to her unborn baby. This is different from the placenta, which other female mammals develop during pregnancy and which is more complex, protecting the fetus and facilitating its development.
Marsupials give birth after a relatively short pregnancy – up to five weeks at most. A baby marsupial is called a “joey”.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo with joey by Fir0002
When the joey is born, it is tiny and does not have any fur, nor can it see, but it does have powerful front legs. It climbs up to its mother’s pouch, using solely instinct, and then attaches to a nipple as soon as it gets there.
For several more weeks or months, the joey stays inside the pouch, attached to the nipple, until it becomes fully developed. When it does, it comes out of the pouch for the first time but still goes back inside to nurse, to sleep, or to seek refuge. Some joeys stay inside the pouch for a year while others stay until the next joey is born.
Joey entering mom’s pouch by vijay chennupati
Diprotodon optatum is the largest marsupial ever to have lived. It was like a bear that walked on all fours, measuring over 12 feet (3.7 meters) long and weighing more than 6000 pounds (2022 kilograms). It became extinct around 25,000 years ago.
Fossil of Diprotodon, Musee d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris by Ghedoghedo
The giant short-faced kangaroo is the largest species of kangaroo to have ever lived. It stood more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and weighed about 600 pounds (272 kilograms). It had a flat face, long arms with clawed fingers and just one big toe on each foot.
The giant koala lived until 50,000 years ago. It looked just like today’s koala, living in trees, but was about 30% larger, weighing about 29 pounds (13 kilograms).
The thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger because of the stripes on its lower back, or the Tasmanian wolf because of its dog-like appearance, is the largest known carnivorous marsupial. It first appeared 4 million years ago and went extinct in the early 20th century.
The thylacine is one of only two known species of marsupials where both males and females have pouches. The male’s pouch was for protecting the reproductive organs while going through thick bushes. It was a nocturnal predator, hunting kangaroos, wallabies and birds.
Last thylacine yawning by FunkMonk
See the last thylacine in action:
The marsupial lion is another carnivorous marsupial. It is not closely related to the lion, but like cats, had retractable claws well-suited for climbing trees and catching prey.
Gliders are small marsupials in the genus Petaurus which have folds of skin extending from the wrists to the ankles. When they spread out their bodies, these folds of skin act like wings, allowing them to glide through the air from one tree to another, hence their name.
Sugarglider by Jonathan Hornung
Gliders are nocturnal and have large eyes that allow them to see well in the dark. They also have long, flat tails which they spin around like rudders when they are gliding.
Male and female Sugar Gliders eating Meal-worms by OberonNightSeer
See sugar gliders in action:
Male kangaroos are called “bucks”, “boomers” or “jacks”, while female kangaroos are called “does”, “flyers” or “jills”. A group of kangaroos is called a “mob”, “troop” or “court”.
Kangaroos have long and powerful hind legs which they use when hopping from one place to another. They are the only large animals to hop around rather than walk.
Kangaroos can hop as fast as 25 miles (40 meters) per hour, as high as ten feet (3 meters) into the air and as long as forty feet (12.2 meters) in one bound. They cannot hop backward, though.
Kangaroo in Flight by Chris Samuel
Kangaroos are also excellent swimmers. When chased by a pack of dingoes, they often go into the water. If pursued, they can use their front legs to hold the dingoes underwater and drown them.
Kangaroos have long tails which they can lean on in order to deliver powerful kicks at predators or other kangaroos during fights. Kangaroos have a long toe nail on each of their hind feet, which makes their kicks even more dangerous.
Kangaroos have teeth and stomachs that are especially designed for eating grass, like those of cows and sheep. Like cows, they can bring their partially digested food back to their mouths in order to chew it one more time before it is completely digested.
Kangaroo at Glenbrook by Andrea Schaffer
Kangaroos are solitary during the rainy season but live in groups during the dry season, consisting of 8 to 25 individuals. When in a group, kangaroos touch noses, sniff each other and groom each other to reinforce their bonds.
Fights are common among kangaroos, particularly males. Usually the fight begins when a male grasps the neck of another male, issuing the challenge. This challenge can be ignored but if it is accepted, the challenged male assumes a standing posture and the two males paw at each other’s head and chest while pushing each other and kicking each other in the abdomen. The fight ends when one of the males falls down – the male left standing is the winner.
Kangaroo Boxing by Scott Calleja
Kangaroos are a recognized symbol of Australia, featured on the Australian Coat of Arms along with the emu, and also on the Australian one dollar coin.
The red kangaroo is the largest kangaroo and the largest marsupial in the world, standing up to 6 feet 7 inches (2 meters) tall and weighing as much as 200 pounds (91 kilograms)!
Red Kangaroo by Anthony Cramp
The eastern grey kangaroo, however, is the most common kangaroo, distributed throughout southern and eastern Australia. As of 2010, more than 11 million eastern grey kangaroos have been found remaining in the wild.
See kangaroos in action:
Wallabies are marsupials that look just like kangaroos but are smaller. Wallabies that are seen in forests are also called pademelons.
Rock wallabies are so named for their preference of rocky habitats, particularly loose piles of boulders and rock caves. Their feet are well-adapted to gripping rocky surfaces.
Mareeba Rock Wallabies at Granite Gorge by Richard Fisher
The Tammar wallaby is one of the smallest wallabies and has the unique ability to retain its energy while hopping – a result of its elastic leg tendons. It can also drink seawater, which allows it to survive when water is scarce.
See wallabies in action:
The koala is a unique creature, being the only member of its particular marsupial family. Although it is often called a “koala bear”, it is not a bear. Rather, its closest living relatives are actually wombats.
Koalas have round bodies, fluffy ears, large noses, small eyes and very short tails. They are typically light brown to gray, with koalas that live in the north being lighter in color.
Friendly Male Koala by Quartl
Koalas spend most of their time up in the trees. They have curved, sharp claws that are well-suited for climbing trees, and two fingers on each hand that are opposable, meaning they can move toward the other fingers, just like ours, which allow them to easily grasp tree branches.
Koalas have small brains. In fact, they are one of the mammals with the smallest brains in proportion to their body weight. Scientists believe this is due to the koala’s poor diet, which cannot provide enough energy to sustain a large brain.
Koalas have poor eyesight, having small eyes and slit-like pupils. They have excellent hearing, however, allowing them to hear approaching predators and listen to the sounds made by other koalas.
Koalas have a specialized diet, eating mostly eucalyptus leaves, particularly 30 species out of the 600 in existence. They can eat as much 2.5 pounds (1.1 kilograms) of leaves a day but get little energy from it, which is why they must limit their energy use, sleeping for as long as 20 hours each day!
Koala Eating by Rennett Stowe
The sleeping position of a koala depends on the weather. When it’s warm, koalas lie on their stomachs with their arms and legs dangling. When it’s cold, koalas curl into a ball. They usually sleep on high branches but will move to lower branches when it’s windy.
Koalas do not need to drink often, getting the water they need from the leaves they eat and storing it in their cecum, the beginning of the large intestine. Koalas have the longest cecum of any mammal, measuring 80 inches (203 centimeters) long.
Koalas nurse their young for as long as a year. At six months, though, the mother koala begins to feed her young something called “pap”, which is a paste of pre-digested leaves, much like the food stored in the koala’s cecum.
Koala Bear and Her Joey by MrGuilt
There are many myths about the koala among the indigenous people of Australia. One tells of how the koala was responsible of creating the lush forests of Australia and how, if a koala’s dead body is not treated properly, its spirit will cause the land to be barren again.
See koalas in action:
Opossums are the largest order of marsupials outside of Australia, consisting of more than a hundred species. They range in size from as small as a mouse to as large as a housecat.
North American opossum with winter coat by Cody Pope
Opossums are sometimes referred to as possums, but confusingly there are marsupials in Australia, that are officially called possums.
Opossums have long tails, some of which are prehensile, meaning they can be used to grasp tree branches. Contrary to popular belief, though, they do not hang upside down from trees.
Opossums have a remarkable immune system. They are immune to the poison of various snakes, including rattlesnakes, pit vipers and water moccasins.
Whereas most marsupials give birth to just one baby at a time, female opossums give birth to many, though usually only 13 survive – the same number as the female’s teats.
Baby opossums leave the pouch at between 70 and 120 days. This is relatively short compared to the time other joeys spend in their mother’s pouch. This may be because opossums have a short lifespan, only two to four years on average.
Mom opossum and babies by Monica R.
Opossums are usually solitary but will live in groups in ready-made, abandoned burrows. Some are commonly found inside or under people’s houses.
When threatened, opossums will growl, and if this fails, they can play dead, closing their eyes, baring their teeth and excreting a foul-smelling liquid. This, however, is not a conscious act but an automatic response to danger, much like fainting. Opossums that play dead will usually regain consciousness after 40 minutes, though some can hold the act for as long as four hours.
Baby opossums cannot play dead, nor can they growl, because their brains are not yet well-developed. They will, however, hiss when threatened or make a sneezing sound to call their mother.
Some opossums have white spots over each eye and so are called “four-eyed” opossums. Others resemble mice and so are called “mouse” opossums. There are also short-tailed opossums and fat-tailed opossums.
The bushy-tailed opossum is named for its furry tail. In contrast, the bare-tailed woolly opossum has a naked, prehensile tail (meaning it’s capable of grasping things). Both can be found in South America.
The Virginia opossum is the largest opossum, measuring more than 3 feet (0.9 meters) long and weighing up to 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms). It is also the only marsupial found in the United States.
Virginia opossums have 50 teeth, the highest number of teeth found in any mammal living in North America.
Virginia Opossum showing teeth by John
The water opossum, or yapok, is the most aquatic of all marsupials, spending most of its time in freshwater lakes or streams. It is well-adapted to its aquatic lifestyle, with water-repellent fur and webbed hind feet.
Because it is often in the water, the water opossum’s pouch is quite special. It can close completely and is watertight, keeping the joey dry even when its mother is immersed in the water.
The water opossum is the only living marsupial where both males and females have a pouch. The male’s pouch protects his reproductive organs while swimming and also helps him swim more efficiently.
See opossums in action:
Possums, not to be confused with “opossums”, are any of the 70 tree-dwelling marsupials found in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand and parts of Asia.
Johanna, our female possum in Australia by Leo Laps
The bear cuscus is the largest possum, weighing over 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms). It can only be found on smaller islands off the coast of Sulawesi, one of the largest islands of Indonesia.
The Tasmanian pygmy possum is the world’s smallest possum, resembling a dormouse. During cold weather, it enters torpor, which is like incomplete hibernation. In this state, its oxygen consumption drops to just 1%.
The greater glider is not actually a glider but a possum, though it can also glide. It is a picky eater, feeding only on young eucalyptus leaves – and on even fewer eucalyptus species than those the koala eats, at that.
The mountain pygmy possum is the only marsupial found in the alpine parts of Australia, particularly in elevations of 4000 feet (1219 meters) above sea level. Its tail is longer than its body and its diet consists mostly of insects, particularly the Bogong moth, which migrates to the mountains during spring and summer.
Eastern Pygmy Possum by Image Library
The honey possum is one of only a handful of mammals that feed on nectar. Like other animals that feed on nectar, it has a pointed snout and a long tongue.
The common brushtail possum is the possum most commonly seen in Australia. It is nocturnal, sleeping in dens in tree hollows as well as on roofs during the day. When awake, it is a noisy animal, making grunts, hisses, chatters and screeches.
The common ringtail possum is able to produce two types of fecal matter. During the night, it produces hard fecal matter, which is basically the waste it expels from its body, and during the day, it produces soft fecal matter which it eats in order to get more protein!
Ring tailed possum by Benjamint444
See possums in action:
The Tasmanian Devil is the largest living carnivorous marsupial in the world, with males growing to over 26 inches (66 centimeters) long and weighing as much as 18 pounds (8.2 kilograms).
The word sarcophilus in the Tasmanian Devil’s scientific name means “meat lover”. In the past, when thylacines still lived, it preyed on thylacine cubs. Today, it eats mostly other marsupials, including younger devils, birds, fish, frogs, lizards and insects, but it can take a small kangaroo when the opportunity arises! It has also been observed to chew through the legs of sheep.
Young Tasmanian devil by KeresH
Tasmanian Devils are also good scavengers, able to consume every part of small animals, including the bones and fur. In large animals, they eat the digestive system first and then they sit in the hole where the animals gut used to be, to feed on the rest of the animal!
The Tasmanian Devil has a strong bite force, especially for its size – about 125 pound-force (556 newtons), which is stronger than a dog’s. It can open its jaws, which resemble those of the hyena, as wide as 80 degrees.
Tasmanian Devils are able to find their prey using their excellent senses of hearing and smell. They also have excellent night vision, well-suited for their nocturnal lifestyle. In addition, they have long whiskers that help them find their way in the dark and prevent them from getting too close to other devils.
Tasmanian Devil by Travis
The Tasmanian Devil gets its name from its far-reaching, disturbing screeches, along with its piercing dark eyes, its black fur and its ears that turn bright red when it is angry. In the past, it was also given the names “Beelzebub’s pup” and “bear-like devil”.
You can tell how healthy a Tasmanian Devil is by looking at its tail. A Tasmanian Devil stores fat in its tail, so the fatter the tail, the healthier it is. Tasmanian Devils also have a scent gland under their tails which leaves a foul odor behind.
Tasmanian Devils can run fast – up to 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) per hour. They can also swim, even in icy water, crossing rivers up to 160 feet (48.8 meters) wide. Young devils can climb trees, as well.
Tasmanian Devils live in dens, occupying abandoned ones or those of their prey. Mothers with young use only one den, while other devils move from one den to another, often having three or four dens.
Tasman Peninsula Prince Roy
A female Tasmanian Devil can give birth to up to 30 young, which can also be called “pups” or “imps”. She only has four nipples, though, and so the litter becomes smaller with each passing week, until only 40% survive.
See Tasmanian devils in action:
Wombats look like small, stocky bears with short legs and tails. They are known for their extensive burrow systems, which can be up to 100 feet (30.5 meters) long and more than 11 feet (3.4 meters) deep, with 20-inch- (51-centimeter-) wide tunnels.
Wombat by Catherine
When chased by predators, a wombat can quickly dig a short burrow in order to escape. In case the predator catches up, the wombat presents its rear, which is tough, consisting mostly of cartilage, and if the predator still attempts to slip its head inside the tunnel, the wombat uses its powerful legs to kick it or crush its skull against the roof of the tunnel.
Wombats can have as many as 12 burrows at a time, with 3 or 4 main burrows. They have been observed to dig with just one paw and then switch to the other after a few minutes.
Hairy Nosed Wombat by macinate
Interestingly, wombat droppings are cube-shaped! It can deposit up to 100 of these each day, particularly on top of leaves, rocks and branches, to mark its territory.
See wombats in action:
Bandicoots are small, rat-like marsupials found in Australia, with about 20 species. Some have long noses and others have shorter ones, while some also have coarse hair that looks like spines.
Southern Brown Bandicoot by Mike Switzerland
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The bilby, also known as macrotis, the dalgite in Western Australia and the pinkie in South Australia, looks like the bandicoot but has bigger ears. It also has a long, slender tongue which helps it to find food, such as seeds and insect larvae, in the soil.
See bilbies in action:
Bettongs are mouse-like marsupials, which sleep in nests made of leaves during the day and are active at night. The woylie, one species of bettong, has a prehensile tail (it can grip) which it uses to carry nesting material around.
The long-tailed planigale is the smallest marsupial and some say the smallest mammal, only 2.3 inches (5.8 centimeters) long. Because of its size, it can squeeze into the tiniest cracks in the soil to avoid predators.
Planigale by Alan Couch
Marsupial moles have been around for 20 million years. They spend most of their time underground, not digging any permanent burrows but digging tunnels and filling the ones behind them as they move. They are blind and have no external ears.
The monito del monte, which is Spanish for “little bush monkey”, is believed to be a descendant of Australian marsupials that migrated back to South America. It lives mainly in trees, constructing nests made of water-resistant leaves covered with gray moss. During winter, it hibernates, storing fat in its tail.
Monito del Monte by José Luis Bartheld
The numbat is also known as the banded anteater because of the stripes on its back, and its diet consists of mostly termites, which it finds by scent. It also has an excellent sense of sight – the sharpest among all marsupials, in fact.
See numbats in action:
The potoroo looks like a kangaroo but is about the size of a rabbit. It used to be very common in Australia but is currently endangered due to habitat loss and hunting by foxes. Gilbert’s potoroo, in particular, is considered the most endangered animal in Australia, with only one population remaining.
The quokka is a cat-sized marsupial which is good at climbing trees. It is approachable, having no fear of humans, though law forbids humans from handling them in any way.
Quolls are solitary, nocturnal carnivorous marsupials, feeding on rabbits, small birds, lizards and frogs. Sadly, quolls, especially western quolls, often fall victim to the poison of the cane toad.
Spotted-tailed quoll by S J Bennett
See quolls in action:
Photo01 The Mob of Kangaroos by Wayne Butterworth cc2.0
Photo02 Joey gymnastics by Allan Henderson cc2.0
Photo03 Marsupials from Australia – Photo taken at the Lisbon Zoo by Alfonsopazphoto cc3.0
Photo04 Kangaroos at the Tower Hill by Nick Higgins cc2.0
Photo05 Wallaby, Taronga Zoo, Sydney by Wendy Harman cc2.0
Photo06 Wallaby joey face in pouch by Benjamint444 cc3.0
Photo07 Joey in pouch by Geoff Shaw cc3.0
Photo09 Eastern Grey Kangaroo with joey by Fir0002 cc3.0
Photo10 Joey entering mum’s pouch by vijay chennupati cc2.0
Photo11 Fossil of Diprotodon, an extinct mammal- Took the photo at Musee d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris by Ghedoghedo
Photo12 Last thylacine yawning by FunkMonk
Photo13 Sugarglider by Jonathan Hornung cc2.5
Photo14 Male and female Sugar Gliders eating Meal-worms from bowl by OberonNightSeer cc3.0
Photo15 Kangaroo in Flight by Chris Samuel cc2.0
Photo16 Kangaroo at Glenbrook by Andrea Schaffer cc2.0
Photo17 Kangaroo Boxing by Scott Calleja cc2.0
Photo18 Red Kangaroo by Anthony Cramp cc2.0
Photo19 Mareeba Rock Wallabies at Granite Gorge by Richard Fisher cc2.0
Photo20 Friendly Male Koala by Quartl cc3.0
Photo21 Koala Eating by Rennett Stowe cc2.0
Photo22 Koala Bear and Her Joey by MrGuilt cc2.0
Photo23 North American Opossum with winter coat by Cody Pope cc2.5
Photo24 mom opossum and babies by Monica R. cc2.0
Photo25 Virginia Opossum bearing its teeth by John cc2.0
Photo26 Johanna, our female possum in Australia by Leo Laps cc2.0
Photo27 Eastern Pygmy Possum by Image Library cc2.0
Photo28 Ring tailed possum by Benjamint444 cc3.0
Photo29 Young Tasmanian devil by KeresH cc3.0
Photo30 Tasmanian_Devil_12 by Travis cc2.0
Photo31 Tasman Peninsula Prince Roy cc2.0
Photo32 Wombat by Catherine cc2.0
Photo33 Hairy Nosed Wombat by macinate cc2.0
Photo34 Southern Brown Bandicoot by Mike Switzerland cc3.0
Photo35 Planigale by Alan Couch cc2.0
Photo36 Monito del Monte by José Luis Bartheld cc2.0
Photo37 Spotted-tailed quoll by S J Bennett cc2.0