The name marsupial comes from the marsupium, or pouch, in which these animals carry
and nurse their young.
Marsupials have very short gestation periods (the time the young spend in the mother's
tummy). The Virginia opossum (the only marsupial in Michigan) has a gestation period
of only 13 days, and the young are only the size of a question mark when they are
born. The Red Kangaroo, native to Australia, has a 30 day gestation period and the
single baby weighs only 1 gram (.035 ounces) when it is born. The baby kangaroo, called
a joey, spends about 235 days in the mother's pouch.
Australia has about 120 species of marsupials, New Guinea has 53 species of marsupials,
South and Central America have 90 species of marsupials, and North America has only
two species of marsupials.
Marsupials range in size from tiny shrew-like creatures (5 grams) to large kangaroos
(over 200 pounds). There are marsupials that have occupied every available niche from
tiny insect eaters to large plant eaters. There are even marsupial moles!
Marsupials first evolved in South America about 100 million years ago. At that time,
South America, Australia and Antarctica were connected together in one big continent.
Australia and Antarctica gradually moved away from South America and both continents
became isolated. Marsupial mammals were free to evolve in isolation, and evolution
produced the characteristics found in present day Australian mammals.
Most marsupials are night creatures so their most important senses are their sense
of smell and their hearing. Most marsupials have extra scent glands which tell their
neighbors whether they are boys or girls, if they are a stranger to the group, or
if they are frightened or angry.
The largest marsupial in the world is the Red Kangaroo, like the one you see in the
Card Center. Red Kangaroos can weigh 200 pounds, hop up to 30-40 miles per hour, and
leap over obstacles up to 10 feet high. Kangaroos move more efficiently at high speeds
than at low speeds because the tendons in their hind legs store energy and their tail
acts like a pendulum. They can hop long distances because their body motion pumps
air in and out of their lungs like a bellows.
There are over 40 species of kangaroos. The smaller kangaroos are called wallabies.
Kangaroos are grass eaters that live in grasslands that can be very dry with little
rainfall. They may be able to go several months without water because they are capable
of getting water from the food they eat.
A male kangaroo is called a boomer, a female kangaroo a flyer, and a baby kangaroo
a joey. The name kangaroo came from the Aborigines through a mistake. An early European
explorer asked an Aborigine what these strange hopping animals were, and the Aborigine
replied kangaroo, meaning "I don't understand." The explorer thought he was naming
Kangaroos usually eat during late afternoon or in the evening when it is cooler.
Kangaroos fight with each other by boxing with their front paws, but defend themselves
with powerful kicks from their hind legs. When danger approaches, they warn other
kangaroos by stomping the ground with their hind feet or thumping it with their tail.
Card/Riley Conservation and Wildlife Education Center Arts, Sciences and Education Commons 011 820 Campus Drive Ferris State University Big Rapids, Mich. 49307