Biology

The term ‘macropod’ is used to describe the marsupial family Macropodidae, which includes kangaroos, wallabies, tree-kangaroos, pademelons, bettongs and several others. They are generally recognised by their long powerful hind legs and feet.

The larger species of macropods, such as kangaroos and large wallaby species, are considered “mob” animals as they reside in large groups of animals that consist of females, their young and a dominant male. Other species are solitary, coming together only during breeding season, although they will often congregate in feeding areas but will then disperse individually.

Distribution

Macropods are found in a variety of habitats including grasslands, woodlands, dry and wet eucalypt forests and tropical and dry rainforests.

In South-east Queensland, the most common species of macropods include:

  • Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus)
  • Whiptail Wallaby (Macropus parryi)
  • Red Necked Wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus)
  • Swamp Wallaby (Macropus bicolor)
  • Black Striped Wallaby (Macropus dorsalis)
  • Red Necked Pademelon (Thylogale thetis)
  • Red Legged Pademelon (Thylogale stigmatica)

Anatomy and Physiology

Macropods are unique in that all species but one (the Musky Rat-Kangaroo) “hop” on their hind limbs. They cannot walk backwards or move their hind legs independently except when lying on their side or swimming.

When hopping, macropods place only a small portion of their hind feet on the ground and use their tail for balance.   On uneven ground, macropods use their tail extensively to retain their balance.

When walking, the larger macropod species move slowly and use their hands, feet and their tail. The smaller species of macropods move in the same manner however they tend not to rely on their tail as much, often dragging it behind on the ground.

The shape of the hind foot varies greatly between species depending upon the type of habitat in which they live. Species that live in grassland areas, such as the Grey Kangaroo and Red Kangaroo, have a long, narrow hind foot. Species that live in rocky habitats have a broader and generally shorter hind foot.

Macropods have a strong tail, which varies greatly in length between species. They use their tail extensively for balancing, not only when hopping and walking, but also when fighting and grooming.

The diet of macropods is basically herbivorous and eat a variety of native grasses, herbs and shrubs. Some species will also eat a variety of insects.

Macropods use a wide variety of vocalisations to communicate in various circumstances. Females will communicate with their young by making soft clucking sounds. A macropod joey will communicate with its mother when stressed by making a loud guttural coughing noise. Males will communicate with other males in territorial disputes by making a variety of threatening vocal sounds such as hisses and guttural coughs.

Reproduction and Development

Female macropods have a well-developed forward-opening pouch, which contains four teats.

Gestation lasts only three to five weeks. When the female is nearing time to give birth, she spends considerable time cleaning the pouch. Immediately prior to the birth, the female will position herself in such a way as to give the foetus the best chance of reaching the pouch safely. Grey Kangaroos tend to stand while giving birth while most other species sit on their rump with their tail and hind legs out in front.   The female will clean her urogenital area and lick a path from her cloaca to her pouch. When the foetus emerges from the urogenital opening it is enclosed in an amniotic sac from which it breaks free with its claws. The foetus then instinctively climbs, unaided by its mother, to the pouch entrance.   Once inside the pouch, the foetus attaches itself to one of the four teats.

From the time of birth to the time of weaning, the macropod joey will feed from the same teat.   When it is older and has left the pouch, the mother may give birth to another joey.   When a younger sibling is born, it will attach to and feed from one of the remaining three teats. The mammary glands of a macropod can supply two young with different ages with milk of different composition.

Most macropod species breed continuously throughout the year. During times of severe drought, they will not give birth but will wait until conditions are better.

Capture and Handling

All macropods, including small species such as pademelons and bettongs, have a very powerful kick and can cause significant human injury. Sub-adult and adult macropods are very difficult to restrain manually and most will require sedation to enable them to be safely transported for treatment.

We do not suggest that any person attempt to capture or restrain an adult macropod if they have not been trained to do so. Adult macropod rescues require specialised rescue equipment to ensure the safety of yourself, the public and the animal.

In most cases, injured adult macropods will require an experienced wildlife rescuer to attend and preferably one that is able to sedate the animal prior to transportation.

Common Reasons for Rescue

Orphaned Joeys

It is important that orphaned macropod joeys are transferred to an experienced wildlife carer as soon as possible as they have very specialised heating and feeding requirements.

Macropod joeys can develop myopathy quickly. Myopathy is a stress-related condition that destroys the muscles (including the cardiac muscles) and can quickly lead to death. There is little change of recovery for macropods suffering from acute myopathy and joeys that are subjected to a high degree of stress will not survive.

Joey’s whose mothers have been the victim of trauma-related injuries (such as hit by car or attacked by a dog), must receive a full assessment by a wildlife veterinarian as they too often sustain injuries such as fractured limbs, internal bleeding and/or bruising. These injures are difficult to identify without the aid of x-rays and blood tests. All injured macropod joeys will require pain relief and antibiotics if they are to be given a good chance of survival.

If you find a dead female kangaroo and the joey is alive and still in the mother’s pouch:

  • Leave the joey in the pouch.
  • If possible, wrap the mother’s entire body in a blanket to help maintain her body heat (or alternatively wrap a towel around the pouch area of the mother).
  • Contact your local wildlife rescue group immediately who will be able to provide you with additional information based on the circumstances.
  • For small females, you may be able to take the mother and joey to the closest wildlife hospital or vet.

If the joey is no longer in the pouch, but standing near the mother’s body:

  • You need to capture the joey quickly to prevent it from running away.
  • Contain the joey in a pillowcase, bag or alternatively, wrap it in a jumper or towel ensuring that the joey’s head is covered to reduce stress.
  • If you aren’t able to capture the joey, leave the mother’s body in a safe area on the side of the road and stand well away from the mother and wait for the joey to return.
  • Call an experienced wildlife rescuer immediately who will attend and attempt to catch the joey with specialised equipment.

If you find a dependent joey on its own with no sign of the mother:

  • Place the joey in a pillowcase or alternatively, wrap the joey in a towel or jumper with a hot water bottle filled with warm water underneath the towel and place it in a box. Do NOT use hot water as it can cause severe burns.
  • Unfurred joeys can be placed under your jumper against your skin for warmth.
  • Call your local wildlife rescue group immediately or take the joey to your closest wildlife hospital or vet.

Deceased Macropods

If you find a deceased kangaroo or wallaby, it is important to check if it is a male or female. Female macropods should be checked carefully to ensure that there is no live joey in the pouch.

To check the pouch, it is necessary to open the pouch and check the entire pouch very carefully. Very small joeys will often become detached from the teat on impact and may be at the bottom of the pouch. Remember, macropod joeys at birth are around the size of a jellybean so it is important to check carefully.

If you find a live joey, please contact your local wildlife rescue group for assistance.

All deceased animals should be removed from the road. Doing so will prevent other animals from being killed, who may attempt to feed on the carcass.

In Australia, wildlife rescue groups are run by volunteers and therefore do not collect or remove dead animals. Contact your local Council to report dead wildlife who will organise to have it collected.

Dog Attack

In the unfortunate event that a dog chases and comes into contact with a macropod, it is important that the incident is reported to your local wildlife rescue group. Time is of the essence in these situations, as the animal is often still mobile. Please observe the animal closely from a safe distance until a specialised wildlife rescuer arrives. In some instances, the animal may need to be tranquilized with a dart gun in order to be captured and veterinary treatment sought.

Macropods that appear to have only minor injuries still require urgent attention. Even just one bite from a dog can prove fatal.

Remember, macropods suffer tremendously from stress so please ensure that any dogs are quickly removed from the area and placed out of sight from the animal.

Malnutrition / Starvation / Sick

Reports of sick kangaroos and wallabies are not uncommon and often present in poor body condition which can be the result of a previous injury or due to old age.

Contact your local wildlife rescue group who will be able to provide further advice. An experienced macropod rescuer will consult with a wildlife veterinarian to determine the most appropriate outcome for the animal.

Lost / Displaced Macropods

Periodically macropods will be reported to be in an unusual location on their own. This is particularly common in suburban areas.

There are several reasons why this may occur including:

  • An aged kangaroo (particularly males) may become ostracised from its mob by a younger, more dominant male.
  • A female kangaroo may become separated from the mob when it has a joey that is unwell or injured.
  • A sick macropod may seek out shelter and/or food and stay in a small area rather than moving throughout its usual home range.

If the animal does not appear distressed and does not appear to be visibly sick or injured, then the most appropriate action is generally to leave the animal alone. If the animal is distressed, it is important NOT to chase or herd it as this will only make it more stressed and can induce capture/exertional myopathy, which can easily result in its death.

Please report individual animals in unusual locations to your local wildlife rescue group as they will often monitor the animal over a period of days or weeks to ensure that it is safe and healthy.

Swimming in a canal/water body

Macropods are generally very confident at swimming and it is not unusual for them to move through watercourses. However, in suburban areas there are many man-made water bodies, such as canals with concrete walls that do not allow for the easy exit from the water by the animal.

If there does not appear to be any easy exit point for the animal, please refer the matter to your local wildlife rescue group. Otherwise, keep an eye on the animal from a safe distance and ensure that it reaches safety.

Entangled in a fence

Macropods often become entangled in fences, particularly dog/goat wire, barbed wire or pool fencing.

It is important to remain well clear of the animal to reduce stress and further injury. Please do not attempt to remove the animal yourself unless instructed by an experienced wildlife rescuer. If the animal is injured and is freed from the fencing, it may then be impossible to capture it to treat its injuries.

Where possible, it is more humane for these animals to be sedated so that they can be safely removed from the fence, which minimises their injuries and allows a thorough assessment to be undertaken.

Trapped in a yard

Macropods are frequently found trapped in yards, particularly in suburban areas.

Because macropods are easily stressed and can injury themselves when spooked, the best course of action is to leave the animal alone and let it find its own way out of the yard. Attempting to capture and restrain an otherwise uninjured and healthy sub-adult or adult kangaroo or wallaby, increases the risk of injury to the animal and the onset of myopathy, which may lead to death.

In these circumstances, ensure that all domestic animals are removed from the area and remain out of sight. Open all possible gates on the property and stay well away from the animal.

If the animal does not move out of the yard within a few hours, or you are unsure as to whether the animal requires attention, please contact your local wildlife rescue group.