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Buergers'/Goodfellow's (Dendrolagus goodfellowi) and Matschie's (Dendrolagus matschiei) Tree Kangaroos Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Genus: Dendrolagus (tree kangaroos)
    • First species collected - ursine tree kangaroo, described by C.J.Temminck in 1836 as Hypsiprymnus ursinus (Flannery et al. 1996)
      • Assigned scientific name Dendrolagus ursinus by S. Müller in 1839 (Moeller 1990)
    • Dendrolagus ("tree hare") from Greek dendro- for "tree" + lagus for "hare" (Gove 1971)
      • Inspiration for "hare" in the name may have been its taste
        • A Hare Story: On a trip for the Natural History Commission for the Netherlands Indies (1826-1836), S. Müller and H.C. Macklot obtained 4 live ursine tree kangaroos. Because many scientists on the ship were suffering from malaria, a concerned officer used 3 of the specimens to prepare a nourishing meal in the style of "hazenpeper" (peppered hare). Tree kangaroo meat has been reported to have a delicious, gamey quality similar to hares. (Flannery et al. 1996; Martin 2005)
    • Tree kangaroo taxonomy difficult - several major revisions, not yet resolved (Groves 2005; Martin 2005; McGreevey et al. 2012)
      • Taxonomic history
        • 1936 - Rothschild and Dollman proposed 3 groups based on location of hair whorl on back
          • Simplified from 15 species to 7 species, added several subspecies
          • Buergers' tree kangaroo classified as 2 subspecies of D. goodfellowi: D. g. buergersi and D. g. shawmayeri
          • Matschie's tree kangaroo classified as full species with 3 subspecies
        • 1948 - George Tate divided tree kangaroos into 3 different groups
          • Reclassification suspect, later discarded
        • 1982 - Colin Groves condensed taxonomy to 6 species (based on more specimens, multiple characteristics)
          • Buergers' tree kangaroo classified as 2 subspecies of D. matschiei: D. m. buergersi and D. m. shawmayeri
          • Matschie's tree kangaroo classified as full species with 5 subspecies
        • 1996 - Tim Flannery discovered 4 new species and subspecies, reinstated several older species and subspecies for total of 10 species, 9 subspecies
          • Buergers' tree kangaroo classifiedas subspecies of D. goodfellowi
          • Matschie's tree kangaroo classified as full species with no subspecies
        • 2005 - Groves slightly modified Flannery's 1996 proposal to produce the current accepted taxonomy
          • Elevated 2 subspecies to species
    • Dendrolagus goodfellowi (Goodfellow's tree kangaroo) - described by M.O. Thomas in 1908
      • D. g. buergersi (Buergers' tree kangaroo) - described by Paul Matschie in 1912
        • Scientific name (Gove 1971; Groves 2005)
          • Dendrolagus ("tree hare") - from Greek dendro- for "tree" + lagus for "hare" (Gove 1971))
          • goodfellowi - after species discoverer Walter Goodfellow
          • buergersi - likely after Joseph Bürgers, zoologist on 1912-1913 collecting expedition in Sepik River basin, Papua New Guinea (Stresemann 1923 as cited by Gilliard & LeCroy 1968)
          • Synonyms: D. buergersi , D. g. shawmayeri
        • Common names (Flannery et al. 1996)
          • Buergers' tree kangaroo (or tree-kangaroo) - likely after Joseph Bürgers (see above)
          • Local names: timboyok, yemma
    • Dendrolagus matschiei (Matschie's tree kangaroo) - described by Förster & Rothschild in 1907
      • Scientific name (Gove 1971; Groves 2005)
        • Dendrolagus ("tree hare") - from Greek dendro- for "tree" + lagus for "hare" (Gove 1971)
        • matschiei - after naturalist Paul Matschie
        • Synonyms: D. m. matschiei
        Common names (Flannery et al. 1996)
        • Matschie's tree kangaroo (or tree-kangaroo) - after naturalist Paul Matschie
        • Huon tree kangaroo (or tree-kangaroo) - after Huon Peninsula, where found
        • Local names: klapgaman, sivam

    Evolutionary History

    Macropod emergence (reviewed in Archer 1999, Jackson & Vernes 2011, and Martin 2005)

    • Ancestors of modern macropods arose from possum-like ancestors in Australia
      • Genetic studies suggest the split occurred about 40 million years ago
    • Earliest known kangaroo fossils 26-23 million years old
      • Small "rat kangaroos" - lived in warm rainforests
    • Climate change about 33-23 million years ago influenced evolution of macropods
      • Australia cooled and dried as it drifted northward
      • Led to diversification of leathery-leaved plants such as Eucalyptus
      • This provided abundant food for ground-dwelling browsers and grazers

    Macropod diversification (reviewed in Flannery et al. 1996, Jackson & Vernes 2011, and Martin 2005)

    • Australian plate collided with islands at southern end of Asian plate
      • Created New Guinean highlands, casting a rainshadow over Australia
      • Led to increased drying, decline in rainforests
    • Series of ice ages followed
      • Sea levels dropped, land bridges repeatedly linked Australia and New Guinea
      • Most recent ice age 25,000-15,000 years ago
    • Macropods diversified into many species (adaptive radiation)
      • First grasslands appeared by about 17 million years ago
      • Large, ground-dwelling, grazing macropods appeared
        • Arboreal and browsing adaptations lost
      • Large variety of macropod species evolved
        • Explosion of new species began about 5 million years ago

    Tree kangaroos evolved from a ground-dwelling macropod (reviewed in Flannery et al. 1996, Martin 2005, and Prideaux & Warburton 2008)

    • Tree kangaroo evolution unclear due to scarcity of fossils
    • Molecular evidence indicates tree kangaroos and rock wallabies split from a common ancestor about 7.5 million years ago
      • Rock wallabies (genus Petrogale) are closest relatives of tree kangaroos
    • Tree kangaroos secondarily evolved to regain arboreal lifestyle
      • Re-acquired several features that had been lost
        • Skeletal adaptations enabling tree climbing and walking
        • Digestive adaptations for browsing
      • Exploited vacant "monkey" niche in rainforests of northeastern Australia and New Guinea
    • Secondary radiation in New Guinea
      • Ancestors of New Guinea's tree kangaroos may have crossed from Australia to New Guinea on temporary land bridge during ice age
      • Numerous species of tree kangaroos evolved
        • Most likely due to geographic isolation from Australia between ice ages, and localized isolation on mountaintops of New Guinea
    • Limited fossil evidence
      • A few teeth and bones from 5 locations, 2 to 5 million years old
      • Earliest tree kangaroo fossils - teeth from New South Wales and Victoria, Australia
        • 4 to 4.7 million years old
        • Tentatively assigned to Dendrolagus
      • A possible large,extinct tree kangaroo - Bohra paulaefrom New South Wales, Australia (Dawson 2004)
        • Ankle bones, about 2 million years old
        • May have been a tree kangaroo, according to shape that would allow hind feet to turn inward
        • Large for a tree kangaroo - about 30-40 kg (66-88 lb)
      • All other tree kangaroo fossils - from caves in Papua New Guinea, identified as Dendrolagus
        • Nombe Rockshelter: D. g. buergersi, D. dorianus - 15,000-40,000 years old
        • Bird's Head Peninsula: D. inustus and possibly D. goodfellowi - 10,000-100,000 years old
    • About 10 extant (existing) species of tree kangaroos
      • Taxonomy has undergone several revisions, still in flux
      • 2 species inhabit rainforests in northeast Queensland, Australia
      • At least 8 species are present in New Guinea (McGreevy et al. 2012)
        • 12 unique species proposed as of 2012, awaiting validation by molecular methods
        • D. g. buergersi, D. g. goodfellowi, D. pulcherrimus closely related
        • D. matschiei, D. spadixclosely related
          • May have diverged after Huon Peninsula formed, 3 to 4 million years ago

    Cultural History

    • Aboriginal peoples of New Guinea (Flannery et al. 1996; Groube et al. 1986; Jackson & Vernes 2011; Martin 2005)
      • Humans in New Guinea at least 40,000 years (Groube et al. 1986)
      • Hunt tree kangaroos for food and status
        • Humans are biggest predator of tree kangaroos in New Guinea (Flannery et al. 1996)
        • In New Guinea, "the man who has successfully hunted a tree-kangaroo has greatness bestowed upon him. He has conquered the largest, most prestigious and human-like marsupial known to his people." (Flannery et al. 1996, p. 14)
        • Dogs used for past 5,000 years to locate and run down tree kangaroos (Martin 2005)
        • Tree kangaroo skull found above old cooking shelter where inhabitants had no memory of tree kangaroos occurring in area - suggests local extinction at least several generations earlier (Flannery et al. 1996)
        • By late 1970s, Buergers' tree kangaroo had declined significantly across former range and disappeared from some locales due to hunting pressure (Martin 2005)
          • Former populations in central highlands reduced severely or exterminated (George 1979)
        • Current hunting pressure in Papua New Guinea unsustainable (Cuthbert 2010)
      • Fur, teeth, claws, and bones used for body decoration and status symbols (Flannery et al. 1996)
        • Matschie's tree kangaroo tail necklace collected by Hungarian explorer Tankó Fenichel around 1891-1893
        • Buergers' tree kangaroo tail used as breast or neck ornament in western highlands, and as forehead decoration by the Jeghuje in Morobe district
      • Tree kangaroos as pets (Flannery et al. 1996)
        • When adult tree kangaroos killed by hunters, pouch young often taken to village, hand-raised and kept as pets
      • Tree kangaroo stories from Papua New Guinea
        • From the Mianmin people, Central Cordillera:
          • It is said that when a Buergers' tree kangaroo is hit by an arrow, it can pluck the arrow out and throw it back at the hunter, sometimes hitting him (Flannery et al. 1996, p. 21-23)
        • From the Indagen people, Huon Peninsula:
          • The Dagikorep - "mother of tree kangaroos" (Dabek 1997)
            • Hunters believe a smaller and darker variety of the Matschie's tree kangaroo has supernatural powers
            • It is said that the Dagikorep can injure dogs with its tail and confuse hunters so that they become lost
            • It is said that a hunter risks death if he attacks a Dagikorep
          • An Indagen legend (translation by Silas Wagi, as reported by Dabek 1997):
            • Long, long ago, when the earth was young, the people (animals) from the land led by Sivam (Matschie's tree kangaroo), had a great and fierce war with the sea people, on a particular day down by the sea. The fight was brutal and bloody, and as the day wore on the land people felt that they were gradually being overpowered.
            • At long last, not able to withstand the onslaught of the sea people, the land people lowered their tails and fled. Most being light and swift ran into the jungle to hide. Among them was the Sivam who ran furthest into the forests of the high mountains, declaring "I am going into the thick jungle where no one will ever find me." Unfortunately, Pengara (Long-beaked Echidna) was so slow that the sea people hurled most of their spears into its body and left him to die.
            • So to this day the tree kangaroo lives only in the thick mountain forest and is hard to find, while the echidna is always studded with the 'spears' (quills) of the enemies from the sea.
    • European explorers and settlers (Flannery et al. 1996; Martin 2005)
      • Tree kangaroo specimens first collected by Dutch naturalists during a trip for the Natural History Commission for the Netherlands Indies (1826-1836) (see Hare Story above)
      • Illustrated monograph by Rothschild & Dollman (1936) brought tree kangaroos to attention of European scientists
        • Rothschild commissioned Frederick W. Frohawk to create tree kangaroo paintings from specimens
          • Tree kangaroos, watercolors, c1930s.
            • See Martin (2005), p.56-59
      • Much of New Guinea inaccessible to Europeans until 1950s


    • Tree Kangaroos: a Curious Natural History – Tim Flannery, Roger Martin and Alexandra Szalay (1996)
    • Mammals of New Guinea – Tim Flannery (1995)


    Kingdom: Animalia

    Phylum: Chordata

    Class: Mammalia

    Order: Diprotodontia – koalas, wombats, possums, and macropods (kangaroos, tree kangaroos, wallabies, etc.)

    Family: Macropodidae – tree kangaroos, kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons, etc.

    Genus: Dendrolagus

    Species: Dendrolagus goodfellowi (Thomas 1908) - Goodfellow's tree kangaroo

    Subspecies: Dendrolagus goodfellowi buergersi (Matschie 1912) - Buerger's tree kangaroo

    Subspecies: Dendrolagus goodfellowi goodfellowi (Thomas 1908)

    Species: Dendrolagus matschiei (Förster & Rothschild 1907) - Matschie's (or Huon) tree kangaroo

    Sources: Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS 2012, 2016) and Groves (2005)

    "Tree Hares"

    Tree kangaroo with joey


    The scientific genus Dendrolagus refers to the tree kangaroo's tree-dwelling lifestyle and the resemblance Europeans thought it shared with hares.

    Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

    Page Citations

    Archer et al. (1999)
    Cuthbert (2010)
    Dabek (1997)
    Dawson (2004)
    Flannery et al. (1996)
    Groube et al. (1986)
    Groves (2005)
    ITIS (2012, 2016)
    Jackson & Vernes (2011)
    Martin (2005)
    McGreevey et al. (2012)
    Moeller (1990)
    Prideaux & Warburton (2008)

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