Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus)

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

Attribute Males Females
Weight 22-92 kg (49-203 lb) 17-39 kg (37-86 lb)
Head-body length 93.5-140 cm (3.07-4.6 ft) 74.5-110 cm (2.44-3.6 ft)
Standing height about 1.5 m (4.9 ft); almost 2 m (7 ft) on toes (Nowak 1999)  
Tail length 71-100 cm (2.3-3 ft) 64.5-90 cm (2.11-3 ft)


Data sources: Novak (1999), Wilson & Mittermeier (2015)

General Appearance


  • Largest of the marsupial mammals; the largest kangaroo
  • Has small head, large dark eyes, large ears, a thick tail used as a prop when sitting or standing and for balance when hopping (Nowak 1999)
  • Distinguished by a white underbelly and white patch from the corner of the mouth to the base of the ear (Newsome 1995)


  • In general, coat is short, blue-grey to red on back; white on belly (Grzimek & Ganslosser 1990)
  • Females usually a smoky blue but can also be red like many males (Dawson 1995)
    • In northwest, both sexes are typically red
  • Tip of tail pale (not dark like grey kangaroos) (Dawson 1995)
  • Paws and toes are dark (Staker 2006)
  • Surface of nose is hairless and well-defined (Grzimek & Ganslosser 1990)
    • Skin on nose grainy and dusky in color (not shiny black like wallaroos) (Dawson 1995)
  • Black and white patch on side of muzzle; broad white stripe from corner of mouth to ear (Dawson 1995)
  • Very dense and fine fur: 62 fibers/mm (62 fibers/0.04 in) (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005; Staker 2006)
    • Increases insulation in both hot and cold weather
    • Texture feels like soft wool, unlike fur of other kangaroos

Sexual Dimorphism

  • Marked sexual dimorphism (Newsome 1995)
    • Males larger and nearly twice as heavy as females
    • Males' shoulders and arms proportionally larger than that of females
  • Unlike most other kangaroos, male and female red kangaroos often have coats of different colors (Jarman 1989)
    • Sex-specific coloration visible even in juveniles
    • Some males may be female-colored; some females, male-colored

Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics

Adaptations to Desert Heat (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005) 

  • Seek shelter under saltbushes or mulga bushes
  • Reduce activity to a minimum
  • Postures helps avoid heat load:
    • Stand with large tail pulled under body
    • Tail is shaded from sun but air can flow around body to help cooling
  • Panting
    • Enhanced by larger nasal passages than those of other kangaroos
    • More efficient than sweating, because it cools core body temperatures, especially in the brain
  • Sweating
    • Sweat only when exercising
    • To conserve water, stop sweating when they stop hopping, even if body temperature still high
  • Spreading saliva from maxillary salivary glands (which is different than digestive saliva) on forearms
    • Saliva has less protein and phosphates than digestive saliva from parotid gland
    • Water evaporation on arms cools blood in large veins in forearm
  • Can maintain plasma volume when dehydrated (Denny & Dawson 1975)
    • 8% drop of plasma volume, even when body weight decreases by 20% (Schmidt-Nielsen 1964)
    • Camels and burros have similar physiologies to kangaroos (Schmidt-Nielsen 1964) (Yousef et al. 1970)
      • Camels lose less than 10% of plasma volume
      • Burros lose 7% of plasma volume
  • Urea from urine is recycled in the foregut, saving valuable protein and water (Dawson 1995)
  • Juvenile kangaroos are more sensitive than adults to extremes of cold or heat (Munn et al. 2007):
    • Red kangaroos regularly experience temperatures below 0°C (32 °F) and in excess of 45° C (113 °F)
    • In order to cope with thermal extremes, juveniles work harder than adults to maintain their body temperature
      • At low temperatures juveniles take larger breaths than adults
      • At high temperatures juveniles breathe faster

Other Physical Characteristics

  • Features shared with all other members of the taxonomic order Diprotodontia (Nowak 1999; Agar 2008):
    • A large outward projecting incisor on each lower jaw
    • Second and third digits of hind foot are fused (syndactyly), joined by a skin covering with a single claw
  • Features shared with all macropods (Nowak 1999):
    • Long narrow feet
    • Hind limbs longer and stronger than forelimbs
    • Forelimbs have 5 digits
    • Pouch opens forward, has 4 teats
    • Very small or non-existent vocal cords (Symington 1898)
  • Hind limbs in larger kangaroos have unusual properties compared to other animals (McGowan et al. 2008; Bennett & Taylor 1995):
    • Tendons that extend the ankle generate larger than normal stresses and store more elastic strain energy
    • Higher elastic strain energy results in a reduced tendon safety factor
    • The need to minimize tendon and bone stresses limits the largest body size possible for hopping kangaroos and wallabies
  • Large ears can move independently, through 180° (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005)
  • Visual capacity of large kangaroos and wallabies similar to that of rabbits and ungulates (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005)
    • Eyes high on skull
    • Field of vision wide - a tammar wallaby can see 324° for detecting movement in almost any direction
    • Overlap of vision from both eyes is about 25°
      • A rabbit has about 24° of binocular vision
      • A cat has 98° of binocular vision
  • Teeth move forward slowly and eventually fall out, making room for molars erupting behind (Nowak 1999)
    • Four sets of molars thus erupt in a lifetime
    • Animals with similar tooth development: elephants, manatees
    • Very old kangaroos may have only one tooth left in each jaw (Marshall & Corruccini 1978)
  • Toenails shorter than those of other kangaroo species (Staker 2006)
  • Paws and forearms used only occasionally (Weisbecker & Sanchez-Villagra 2006):
    • Pulling down branches
    • Fighting
    • Grooming
    • Holding open the pouch for cleaning

Dense, Fine Fur

the coat of a red kangaroo

The fur of the red kangaroo has a distinct, wooly texture, unlike other kangaroos.

Its coat provides insulation against both hot and cold weather.

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

Page Citations

Agar (2008)
Bennett & Taylor (1995)
Dawson (1995)
Denny & Dawson (1975)
Grzimek & Ganslosser (1990)
Jarman (1989)
Marshall & Corruccini (1978)
McGowan et al. (2008)
Newsome (1995)
Nowak (1999)
Schmidt-Nielsen (1964)
Staker (2006)
Symington (1898)
Tyndale-Biscoe (2005)
Weisbecker & Sanchez-Villagra (2006)
Yousef et al. (1970)

SDZWA Library Links