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Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Genus Macropus contains more living and extinct species than any other marsupial genus (Prideaux & Warburton 2010)
  • Genus Osphranter sometimes used as a subgenus of Macropus; elevated to full genus status by some authors (e.g., Wilson & Mittermeier 2015)
  • Scientific Name: Latin word macropus comes from Greek word makros meaning "long" (referring to kangaroo's long feet);  Latin word rufus means "red-haired"
  • Common Name: Kangaroo is from the Australian Aboriginal language spoken in northern Queensland (Dawson 1995)
    • Male kangaroos are called "marloos" or "boomers"; a female is called a "blue flyer" (Staker 2006)
  • The six largest macropods are kangaroos; smaller macropods are called wallabies (Dawson 1995)
  • Traditional taxonomy (ITIS 2006)
    • Most modern kangaroo species belong to one subfamily
    • Another subfamily is known from fossils and from one remaining living species (banded hare wallaby, Lagostrophus fasciatus)
  • New appraisal of taxonomy (Prideaux & Warburton 2010)
    • The traditional family of tiny potoroos (Potoroidae) may be best considered part of the family of kangaroos and wallabies (Macropodidae)
    • Living kangaroos and wallabies are represented by 4 subfamilies (Prideaux & Warburton 2010):
      • Potorines
      • Lagostrophines
      • Sthenuines
      • Macropodines

Evolutionary History

  • Marsupials probably arrived in Australia between 71.2 to 65.2 million years ago (Late Cretaceous) (Beck 2008)
  • Ancestors of kangaroos and wallabies were possum-like marsupial mammals (Prideaux & Warburton 2010)
    • Lived in trees in forests between 50 to 34 million years ago (Eocene)
  • Macropod family (kangaroos and their kin) fossils date to around 23 million years ago (Early Miocene) (Archer & Bartholomai 1978)
  • One of the oldest known skeletons of a kangaroo is a fossil of Nambaroo gillespieae (Kear et al. 2007)
    • 25-15 million years-old (Oligocene-Miocene)
  • Nambaroo probably didn't hop as well as modern kangaroos; it galloped or bounded on the forest floor and could also climb trees
  • Some researchers suggest a climate cooling event around 14 million years ago (Böhme 2003) with drier, more open habitats is linked to anatomical and metabolic adaptations in ancient kangaroos (Prideaux & Warburton 2010) (Kear et al 2007) (Dawson 1995):
    • Changes in teeth and jaws (for chewing new gritty grasses)
    • Specialized stomachs and physiologies for digesting grasses (including ruminant-like fermentation by bacteria, fungi, protozoans)
    • New locomotion style (hopping between sparse resources that was fueled by highly efficient aerobic metabolism)
      • Other studies suggest hopping evolved even earlier in forested environments, as early as 30 million years ago (Mid to Late Oligocene) (Dawson & Webster 2010)
      • Except for the macropod family, there is no evidence from the fossil record that any other large vertebrates ever hopped
      • Other animals that independently evolved hopping: perching birds, rodents (Helgen et al. 2006)
  • Two giant kangaroos existed in the Pleistocene (Dawson 1995):
    • Macropus titan (Marshall & Corruccini 1978)
      • A larger relative of modern grey kangaroo
    • Giant Procoptodon goliah (Prideaux et al. 2009)
      • 2.0 m (6.6 ft) tall
      • Weighing over 200 kg (441 lb) (Helgen et al. 2006)
      • At least 3 times heavier than a modern red kangaroo
      • The largest hopping animal that ever existed (Helgen et al 2006)
    • Both giant macropods became extinct (along with most other Australian and Tasmanian megafauna) around 45,000 years ago
  • Red kangaroos are the most recently evolved kangaroos (Dawson 1995)
    • Scientists suggest common wallaroos (Macropus robustus) and red kangaroos (Macropus rufus) diverged recently (thousands of years ago) as separate species (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005):
      • They can still interbreed, but produce sterile hybrids
      • The two species employ different survival strategies
        • Red kangaroos travel widely to seek green forage
        • Common wallaroos can subsist on tough spinifex grass and are sedentary
  • Human hunting most likely caused extinction of 21 species of kangaroos by the end of Pleistocene times (Prideaux et al. 2007; Prideaux et al. 2009)
    • Even though climate became increasingly arid, kangaroos were already well-adapted to very dry conditions
    • Climate change and human landscape burning may have had a lesser impact
    • Smaller and faster red and grey kangaroos are all that is left of the large Pleistocene macropods (Dawson 1995)
  • Red kangaroos today show considerable genetic diversity (Clegg et al. 2002)

Cultural History

  • Aboriginal Aranda of Central Australia believed their totemic spirit Arawasmanifest in the red kangaroo (Newsome 1980) (Strehlow 1947)
    • Aramade two Dreamtime journeys:
      • A daytime visit to 14 totemic sites in MacDonnell Ranges
      • A nighttime underground journey across the desert to sacred sites to the north
    • At one totemic sacred site (Krantji), Aranda conducted rituals to increase the population of Ara
    • No hunting was permitted in or around totemic sites
    • Dreamtime songs and stories reflected natives' knowledge and tradition, especially (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005):
      • Red kangaroo's adaptations to harsh desert climate
      • Aranda's responsibility to protect kangaroo refuges
  • Newsome (1980) studied the ecology of red kangaroos in MacDonnell Ranges:
    • At least 10 of the 14 totemic sites for Ara were in actuality important refuges where kangaroo retreated during drought
    • Traditional knowledge can also be seen as "a network of conservation reserves sited in prime habitat..." (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005)
  • Kangaroos were vital to Australia's indigenous peoples' traditional way of life (Tunbridge 1991):
    • As a primary food item in diet
    • As a focus of much ritual and many Dreamtime creation stories
    • For products such as sinew twine, blankets, rugs, and bags made of skin
  • A Kangaroo Dance traditionally was performed at aboriginal ceremonial meetings or "corroborees", according to traditional history (Reed 1978):
    • A kangaroo hiding behind a tree once watched people dancing
    • Inspired, the kangaroo wanted to join the dancers
    • Dancers were greatly surprised and decided to adorn themselves to look like kangaroos
    • Since the kangaroo had intruded into a semi-sacred event, it was also allowed to join candidates at initiation ceremonies
  • Dutch, Portuguese, and English explorers, beginning in the early 1600's recorded seeing small pouched mammals that hopped in Australia (Dawson 1995) (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005)
  • In a journal kept while on the Endeavour with Captain James Cook (1768-1771), Joseph Banks noted encounters with kangaroos (Dawson 1995):
      • Quadriped we saw but few, and were able to catch few of them that we did see.
        The largest was called by the natives kangaroo. It is different from any European and
        indeed any animal I have heard or read of except the Gerbua of Egypt, which is not
        larger than a rat when this is as large as a middling Lamb; the largest we shot weighed 84 lb.
        It may however be easily known from all other mammals by the singular property of running
        or rather hopping upon only its hinder legs carrying its fore bent close to its breast


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Diprotodontia

Family: Macropodidae

Genus: Macropus (Osphranter)

Species: Macropus rufus - red kangaroo

Describer (Date): Demarest (1822)

Source: Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS 2006)

Early Illustration

Illustration of a red kangaroo by John Gould

Illustration of a red kangaroo by 19th century artist-naturalist John Gould.

Although Gould is typically associated with birds, a 1938 trip to Australia inspired his three volume Mammals of Australia and an additional monograph on kangaroos.

Published in Mammals of Australia in 1863 (Vol. II, Plate 7).

Image credit: Public Domain. Made publically available by Museum Victoria via Wikimedia Commons.


Page Citations

Archer & Bartholomai (1978)
Beck (2008)
Böhme (2003)
Clegg et al. (2002)
Dawson (1995)
Dawson & Webster (2010)
Helgen et al. (2006)
ITIS (2006)
Kear et al. (2007)
Newsome (1980)
Prideaux et al. (2007)
Prideaux et al. (2009)
Prideaux & Warburton (2010)
Reed (1978)
Strehlow (1947)
Tunbridge (1991)
Tyndale-Biscoe (2005)

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