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Western Gray Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Western Gray Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Accepted genus Macropus defined by Shaw in 1790, but first efforts to taxonomically place kangaroos were made by German scientists in the 1770s (Simons 2013)
  • Gray kangaroo species placed into subgenus Macropus within genus Macropus in 1985 (Eldridge and Coulson 2015)
  • Two subspecies of western gray kangaroo recognized (Jackson and Groves 2015)
    • Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus: endemic to Kangaroo Island
    • Macropus fuliginosus melanops: mainland Australia
    • Historically, two or three subspecies were recognized based on morphological traits; genetic evidence shows no major differences within the species (Neaves et al. 2013; Eldridge and Coulson 2015)
  • Prior to the late 1960s, the western gray kangaroo was considered to belong to more than one distinct species or considered a subspecies of the eastern gray kangaroo, Macropus giganteus (Dawson 2013)
  • Original type specimen collected from Kangaroo Island in 1803 by French naturalists aboard the research vessel, Geographe (Poole 1976)


  • Macropus
    • The word ‘macropod’ means ‘big foot’ (Staker 2006)
  • fuliginosus (Cassell’s Latin English Dictionary 1987)
    • fuligo meaning “soot or black”
    • -osus meaning “fullness of”


  • Kangurus fuliginosus (Desmarest, 1817) (Eldridge and Coulson 2015)

Common names (Eldridge and Coulson 2015)

  • Western gray kangaroo, gray/grey kangaroo, black-faced kangaroo, Kangaroo Island kangaroo, Mallee kangaroo, sooty kangaroo (English)
  • Kangourou gris (French)
  • Westliches graues riesenkänguru (German)
  • Canguro gris occidental (Spanish)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Some ambiguity surrounds the origin of the word ‘kangaroo’ (see Staker 2006, p. 135)
  • ‘Kangaroo’ was one of the first Aboriginal words introduced into English (Dawson 2013)
    • Traced to people living at the Endeavour River in far north Queensland
      • Word first heard in 1770; not collected again until 1972 (Simons 2013)
    • From gangurru, a word used by the Guugu Yimidhirr people for a particular kind of kangaroo (not any and all types of kangaroos) (Simons 2013)
  • ‘Stinker,’ a nickname that refers to the curry-like smell of adult males (Dawson 2013)
  • ‘Boomer’ (Dawson 2013)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Fossil history of macropodids is sparse and contains “blanks,” so evolutionary relationships are based on genetic evidence (Dawson 2013)
    • 30 million year gap in fossil record through much of the Eocene and Oligocene
  • Earliest ancestors of kangaroos branched off from a small, tree-dwelling possum-like marsupial that left the trees of Australia’s rainforests (which covered most of Australia millions of years ago) (Dawson 2013)
  • Hypsiprymnodontidae (Musky Rat-kangaroo, Hypsiprymnodon moschatus) diverged from ancestors of Macropodidae and Potoroidae around 35 mya (Dawson 2013)
    • Macropodidae and Potoroidae diverge around 23 mya (Dawson 2013)
  • Macropods appear to have benefited from a hopping gait in adapting to life on the forest floor (Dawson 2013)
    • Hopping arose only once among Macropodiformes, possibly during the Oligocene or even earlier in the Eocene (Dawson 2013)
  • Macropods and their bipedal relatives became the dominant group of marsupial herbivores, as the Australian continent dried out and grasslands spread during the late Miocene (Dawson 2013)
    • Middle Miocene and Pliocene (10-2 mya): A major radiation of macropods coincided with reduced diversity of diprotodontids (similarly sized quadrupedal marsupials)
  • Kangaroos in the subgenus Macropus likely emerged in the mid-to-late Pliocene (Dawson 2013)
  • Gray kangaroos separated more recently, mid-to-late Pleistocene; originated in southwestern Australia, spreading north, and later, east (Neaves et al. 2012; Dawson 2013)
    • During this time, arid conditions seem to have restricted movements and created genetic variation among subpopulations (Neaves et al. 2012)
  • Western gray kangaroo on Kangaroo Island became isolated from its ancestral (mainland) population by rising sea levels about 9,500 years ago (early Holocene) (Blumstein and Daniel 2002; Neaves et al. 2012; Dawson 2013; Neaves et al. 2013)
  • Notable extinction event of browsing and grazing herbivores during middle-to-late Pleistocene (Dawson 2013, except as noted)
    • Much species turnover within genus Macropus
    • Arrival of humans in Australia coincided with changes in climate; continent became more arid and grasslands spread
      • Kangaroo evolution is being used to understand the climate of early Australia (Simons 2013)

Closest known extant relatives

Cultural History

Note: The information on this page describes kangaroos in a general sense, unless otherwise noted as being specific to gray (or western gray) kangaroos.


  • First humans arrived in Australia during the late Pleistocene, about 45,000 years ago (Dawson 2013)
    • Diversity of browsing herbivores already greatly reduced by the time humans arrive; environmental conditions favored smaller-bodied, grazing herbivores
  • Rock art with images of kangaroos appeared 50,000 to 8,000 years ago (Simons 2013)
  • 1711: First undisputed European image of a kangaroo species (a drawing of a dusky pademelon) published in Cornelis de Bruijn’s Travels into Muscovy, Persia and the East Indies (Simons 2013)
  • 1768-1771: Europeans onboard Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour famously name and describe kangaroos (Dawson 2013; Simons 2013)
    • Early sketch by Sydney Parkinson (Simons 2013)
      • Later used by George Stubbs to create his influential painting (probably of an eastern gray kangaroo); shaped English depictions of kangaroos for many years
    • Other marsupials, including wallabies in Australia and pademelons in New Guinea, became known to Europeans in the 1600s
  • Early European colonists interested in kangaroos for meat, skins, and sport; also wanted to determine whether kangaroos competed with sheep (Dawson 2013)
    • Fresh meat in short supply—kangaroos considered good eating
  • British colony of New South Wales makes kangaroos more well known to Europe, including to European scientists (Dawson 2013)
  • Late 1700s: Captain Watkin Tench writes descriptive accounts of kangaroos, their biology, and behavior (Dawson 2013)
  • 1790s: Live kangaroos exhibited Britain and Europe (Simons 2013)
  • Early 1800s: Western gray kangaroos on Kangaroo Island hunted by whalers and sealers who used the island as a provisioning site (Dawson 2013)
  • Mid-1800s: Kangaroo skin trade develops on a large scale (Dawson 2013)
  • 1845-1863: Publication of John Gould’s The Mammals of Australia (see image, right) (Simons 2013)
  • 1877: Queensland passes its Marsupial Destruction Act (Simons 2013)
  • 1880: New South Wales passes the Pastures and Stock Protection Act (Simons 2013)
  • 1908: Kangaroo added to Australia’s official coat of arms (Simons 2013)
  • 1934: New South Wales passes Pastures Protection Act, offering some protection to kangaroos for the first time (Simons 2013)
  • 1985: First code of culling practice created (Simons 2013)
  • 1988: Australian government publishes an important report on the kangaroo industry (Simons 2013)
  • Also see History of Managed Care

Changing public perceptions of kangaroos

  • Attitudes toward kangaroo meat (Dawson 2013, except as noted)
    • Kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and emu eggs were commonly eaten by settlers in the 1800s
      • Gradually, many settlers stopped eating kangaroo because this indicated that “you couldn’t afford to kill your own sheep and that you were poor” (Dawson, p. 184)
      • Stigma develops around eating kangaroo meat; falsely said to be unfit for human consumption
        • Some people in rural areas still rarely eat kangaroo, due to concerns about kangaroo parasites
    • 1970s: Australians show renewed interest in eating kangaroo, after pet food markets grow out of pest control hunting for pastoral industries
    • 1980s-early 1990s
      • Economic markets develop supporting kangaroo meat for human consumption; other game meat markets (venison, buffalo) also develop popularity
      • Kangaroo meat: only 2% of the total meat consumed in Australia (Simons 2013)
  • Kangaroos as sport animals (Dawson 2013)
    • In colonial times, European settlers hunted kangaroo in a style comparable to English foxhunts
    • Variations of this sport lasted into the 1950s, often by transporting dogs in open trucks; the meat was fed to the dogs
  • Perceptions of kangaroos as ‘pests’ (Dawson 2013)
    • Livestock raised by European settlers ate away much of Australia’s natural vegetation; when drought followed, kangaroos blamed and labeled ‘vermin’
      • Attitudes changed from hunting kangaroos for sport to hunting because they were ‘pests’
      • Kangaroos said to be competitors with sheep by inhibiting the growth of vegetation needed to maintain livestock (Norbury et al. 1988)
    • 1880s-1900: legislation in eastern states encourages killing of kangaroos
      • Eradication campaigns, including hunting and poisoning, continue through the mid-20th century

Culture and folklore

  • Kangaroos are a significant, symbolic animal within Australian Aboriginal cultures, but many meanings are kept private (only internally known) (Simons 2013)
    • Examples of meanings
      • Kinship relationships; spiritual form of ancestors
      • Magic and healing
  • Traditional methods of hunting of kangaroos by Aboriginal peoples (Dawson 2013)
    • Hunting methods (varied among peoples and seasons)
      • Quietly stalking a kangaroo
      • A group of hunters driving kangaroos towards other, waiting hunters
      • Using fire to flush kangaroos and drive them towards hunters, or to cultivate vegetation that attracts kangaroos to particular habitat patches
      • Occasionally chasing kangaroos to exhaustion, sometimes with dogs or dingoes
    • Weapons
      • Throwing spears
      • Waddy (stick with one pointed end and another heavy, club end)
      • Non-returning hunting boomerangs
      • Traps (pitfall, “wing,” or natural)
    • Kangaroo products
      • Skins used to make blankets, rugs, or cloaks, which were used for many purposes
      • General-purpose carrying bags or water bags
  • Kangaroos are important symbols of Australia’s national heritage and identity; used to promote tourism
    • Symbols used for tourism posters, stamps, flags, films, and military iconography/military mascots during WWI (Simons 2013)
    • Song by Rolf Harris: “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
    • Modern life influences Australians’ perceptions of kangaroos
      • Human-wildlife conflict exists over use of fertile land (for protection of kangaroos vs. for farming, livestock grazing, and forestry)
      • There are few places close to major Australian cities where people can see kangaroos under "natural" conditions (Dawson 2013)
        • Generally, kangaroos can adapt well to semi-urban/suburban and rural areas (e.g., Coulson et al. 2004)


  • Selected non-fiction
    • Kangaroo by John Simons (2013) – Reaktion Books
    • Kangaroo: Portrait of an Extraordinary Marsupial by Stephen Jackson and Karl Vernes (2011) – Allen & Unwin
    • Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Creature by Tim Flannery (2004) – Grove Press
    • Living with Kangaroos: A Guide to Kangaroos and Their Management in the Murray-Darling Basin by Ron Hacker and Steve McLeod (New South Wales Department of Agriculture)
      • Kangaroo biology in relation to the harvesting industry, livestock grazing, and rangeland management
  • Children’s books
    • Big Red Kangaroo (2013) – written by Clare Saxby, illustrated by Graham Byrne
    • Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo was first published in 1899; early conservation message (Simons 2013)


Television and film

  • TV series
  • Classic film
    • Skippy and the Intruders (1969)
    • In 1895, the silent film Boxende Känguruh (Boxing Kangaroo) is screened in Germany (Simons 2013)
  • Documentaries
    • The Kangaroo King (2014)
      • Produced for Nat Geo Wild
      • Follows the life of “Rusty,” the red kangaroo
    • Kangaroo Mob (2012) – PBS Nature
      • Production description: “There are thousands of kangaroos living in the hills around Canberra. And as night falls, they start moving into the suburbs.”
    • Kangaroos: Faces in the Mob (2007)
      • Filmmakers spend two years living with kangaroos
    • Marluku Wirlinyi: The Kangaroo Hunters (1998)
      • Follows a group of elderly Warlpiri on a kangaroo hunt



Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia (Linnaeus, 1758)

Order: Diprotodontia (Owen, 1866) – koalas, wombats, possums, and macropods (kangaroos, tree kangaroos, wallabies, etc.)

Family: Macropodidae (Gray, 1821) – kangaroos, tree kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons, etc.

Genus: Macropus (Shaw, 1790)

Subgenus: Macropus (Macropus) (Shaw, 1790)

Species: Macropus fuliginosus (Desmarest, 1817) - western gray kangaroo

Subspecies: M. f. fuliginosus (Desmarest, 1817)
Subspecies: M. f. melanops (Gould, 1842)

**Note: Some researchers recognize M. f. ocydromus as a third distinct subspecies, although current genetic evidence (e.g., Neaves et al. 2013) seems to have overturned this formerly recognized subspecies.

Sources: Jackson and Groves (2015); Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017)

Early Illustration

a painting of two Western Grey kangaroo


Illustration by John Gould of two Western Gray Kangaroos.

Plate 3; by Gould J. The Mammals of Australia, 1863. Biodiversity Heritage LibraryPublic domain.

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