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Red Kangaroo (Marcopus rufus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Red Kangaroo (Marcopus rufus)

Activity Cycle

(Croft 1981)

  • Most active after dawn and before dusk
  • Most of day spent resting and feeding; social behavior occupies small proportion of day
    • Average 43.5% of each day in food searching, grass cropping and chewing (Munn et al. 2010)

Movements and Habitat Use

  • Seek sites with shade and shelter; necessary for thermoregulation (Dawson & Denny 1969)
  • No longer considered nomadic, but some individuals do travel great distances for unknown reasons (Tyndale-Biscoe 1995)
    • A male tagged at 2 years old had moved 300 km (186 mi) south 25 years later (Bailey & Best 1992)
    • A female moved 338 km (210 mi) in 15 weeks (Oliver 1986)
  • Modern aerial studies indicate seasonal variations in amount of movement, from 14 to 97 km (about 9 to 60 mi) (Pople et al. 2007):
    • Shifts in distribution towards areas with better rainfall - many red kangaroos move over 50 km (31mi)
    • Distribution is patchy in drought years; more evenly spread in wet years

Territorial Behavior

  • No evidence of territories (Croft 1981)

Social Groups

General

  • Small groups of 2-10 individuals; between 2 and 3 individuals is average
  • Groups are impermanent and small (Croft 1981)
    • Larger groups appear at dense patches of food or water sources
  • Groups sedentary when food available; travel more when food is scarce (Newsome 1975)
  • Males usually found alone or in mixed-sex groups (Johnson 1983)
    • Associate with lactating females with pouch young or young-at-foot nearby - these females may soon breed
  • Females with young often remain apart from larger groups (Lee & Cockburn 1985)

Hierarchy

  •  Male dominance based on size (Lee & Cockburn 1985)

Social Interactions

General

  • Small groups of 2-10 individuals; between 2 and 3 individuals is average
  • Groups are impermanent and small: (Croft 1981)
    • Larger groups appear at dense patches of food or water sources
  • Groups sedentary when food available; travel more when food is scarce (Newsome 1975)
  • Males usually found alone or in mixed-sex groups (Johnson 1983)
    • Associate with lactating females with pouch young or young-at-foot nearby - these females may soon breed
  • Females with young often remain apart from larger groups (Lee & Cockburn 1985)

Hierarchy

  •  Male dominance based on size (Lee & Cockburn 1985)

Aggression

  •  Show competition for resting sites; also, male-male conflict (Croft 1981)
  • Compared to many grazing ungulates, levels of aggression are low (Croft 1981)
  • Young adult males engage in ritualized "boxing" (Tyndale Biscoe 2005)
    • Hold each other's shoulders
    • Supported by tail
    • Competitor rakes other kangaroo with feet
    • Alpha status determined in these bouts
  • Alpha males display less fighting and related behaviors and more sexual behavior (Tyndale-Biscoe 1995)
    • If displaced, they live alone

Communication

Visual Display

  • No complex displays known (Croft 1981) 
  • Males show three kinds of threat behavior (Dawson 1995):
    • Upright posture, either regular posture or high-standing on tiptoes and tip of tail
    • Stiff-legged walking
    • Grass or bush pulling; bushes may be grappled in manner similar to fighting another male or male may thrust chest down against clump of grass and rub

Vocalization (Croft 1981)

  •  Contact call between mother and young:
    • Staccato clicking
  • Aggression
    • "Ha"
  • Male in courtship
    • "Clucking"
  • Alarm
    • Deep hisses and growls

Other Acoustic Communication (Rose et al. 2006)

  •  Foot thumping is common to all macropods
    • One or both hind feet strike ground; audible thump created
    • Most commonly used during predator-prey interactions
    • Function of thumping not clear to researchers
      • May warn other kangaroos of danger
      • Might be signaling the predator
      • Both of the above

Olfaction/Scent Marking (Croft 1981)

  •  Functions of olfactory cues
    • Mother-young recognition
    • Sexual recognition and detection of female's sexual condition
  • Males asserting dominance may grab clumps of grass, pull clumps onto their chest against scent glands (Staker 2006)
  • Frequent sniffing on resting sites of large fecal deposits
    • Sniffing animal doesn't leave own mark on site or vacate the site
  • Males noted for strong-smelling, colored, glandular secretions on neck and chest

Locomotion

(Dawson & Taylor 1973)

  • In a classic study, red kangaroos were trained to hop on a treadmill while oxygen consumption measured
    • At low speeds below 6 km/hr (3.7 mph) rely on pentapedal gait with tail serving as a "crutch"
      • With hind feet and tail on ground, place front feet on ground
      • Pull tail to body; hind limbs lift until only toes touch ground
      • Hind limbs swing forward together while kangaroo supports self with front limbs and tail
      • Lifts front limbs
      • Moves front limbs forward as cycle is repeated
      • Gait is used for foraging and grazing
      • This gait is energetically costly
    • At higher speeds, beginning at 6-7 km/hour (3.7-4.3 mph), use bipedal hopping with both hindlimbs moving together
    • At speeds over 18 km/hour, less energy is required for a kangaroo to hop than for a four-legged animal to run
    • The Achilles tendon and ligaments store and return mechanical energy with each hop (Biewener & Baudinette 1998)
  • Sustained speed possible at 40 km/hour (25 mi/hour); short bursts of 50-65 km/hr (31-40 mph)
  • Good swimmers; "dog-paddle" by alternating kicks of hind limbs (Dawson 1995)
    • Contrary to widespread belief, kangaroos can move their hind limbs independently (while swimming and when moving backwards) (Staker 2006)
  • A resting posture occasionally used: lie on back as if sunbathing, with legs held in mid air (Staker 2006)
  • Foot thumping may serve to confuse predators and also may warn other kangaroos of danger, but exact function of this common behavior is not yet known (Rose et al 2006)

Interspecies Interactions

Predators of adult kangaroos

  • Only dingos and humans (Lee & Cockburn 1985)
    • Dingos were introduced between 3,500 and 12,000 years ago by humans and are significant predators (Savolainen et al. 2004)
    • Red kangaroos and common wallaroos were traditional favored meat of natives of Flinders Range in South Australia (Tunbridge 1988, 1991)
    • In Arnhem Land in far northern Australia, traditional diet of Gunwingu depended on kangaroos and wallabies (Dawson 1995)

Predators of young kangaroos

  • Foxes, feral cats, and several raptors, including wedge-tailed eagles

Other notes on kangaroo predators

  • Ratio in Australia of carnivores-to-herbivores is low compared to North America (Calaby 1971)
  • Possible Pleistocene predators, especially on extinct giant kangaroos (Dawson 1995; Tyndale-Biscoe 1995):
    • A large marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex)
    • A giant Komodo dragon Megalania prisca, up to 5 m (16 ft) in length
    • Pythons, up to 6 m (20 ft)

Competitors

  • Studies of grazing competition between sheep and kangaroos (Edwards et al. 1996):
    • Kangaroo numbers increased in study area during semi-drought when neighboring kangaroos arrived
    • Some competition with sheep noted, but no decline in wool production
    • During drier periods, kangaroos and sheep diets had less in common than when pastures were wetter

Shade trees

  • Prefer to rest under Casuarina cristata shade trees during hot summer months (Croft 1981)

Other Behaviors

Play

  •  Mother and young engage in grooming and social play (Dawson 1995)
    • Play fighting behavior is most common

Beating the Heat

Red kangaroo lying down in the shade

Red kangaroos seek shade during the heat of the day.

 

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Bailey & Best (1992)
Biewener & Baudinette (1998)
Calaby (1971)
Croft (1981)
Donelan et al. (2002)
Dawson (1995)
Dawson & Denny (1969)
Edwards et al. (1996)
Johnson (1983)
Lee & Cockburn (1985)
Newsome (1975)
Oliver (1986)
Pople et al. (2007)
Rose et al. (2006)
Savolainen et al. (2004)
Staker (2006)
Tunbridge (1988, 1991)
Tyndale-Biscoe (2005)

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