Together with their larger cousin, the kangaroo, wallabies belong to the genus Macropods (which means big feet – makros being Greek for large and pod meaning foot – hopefully they don’t mind having it pointed out!). The macropod family include kangaroos, tree-kangaroos, wallaroos, pademelons, quokkas and wallabies.
The name wallaby comes from the Eora Aboriginal people of coastal NSW; although to confuse things a little, the term wallaby is used to describe any macropod that is smaller than a kangaroo and typically larger than a quokka. There are 73 species of macropods in total, including about 30 varieties of wallabies, mainly being classed according to their habitat eg Rock Wallaby, Swamp Wallaby etc. The girls go by the name of fliers, whilst the guys are boomers!
So, what’s the difference between a kangaroo and a wallaby? Well, the most obvious one is their size, with wallabies being smaller. Wallabies also sport more ritzy coats, typically having two or three colours in their fur, whereas kangaroos tend to be one uniform colour. The other main difference is their dental assets, with wallabies having flatter teeth and kangaroos more curved gnashers. Finally, kangaroos trump wallabies in the longevity stakes, living on average around 25 years, whereas wallabies can only expect to live around half that time (12-14 years).
Like kangaroos, wallabies have large hind legs, making jumping and bounding a breeze and helping them to travel efficiently over the miles (although they don’t have a reverse gear, as they can only jump forwards). A more unusual use for these hind features is that they make excellent paddles, as these guys are good swimmers! Yes, those legs are a definite asset and they can deliver a hefty kick – which can come in handy if they are under attack from would-be predators. These might be wild dogs, foxes, feral cats, snakes, eagles or unfortunately, us. You’ll know they’re not happy when they thump with their feet and hiss – this is their signal for danger.
As with many creatures, the biggest threat that faces wallabies is loss of habitat due to humans encroaching on their home lands. Sadly, there are several wallaby species that are considered endangered, namely the Black Forest wallaby, the Yellow-Footed wallaby, Proserpine Rock wallaby, the Rufous Hare wallaby and the Bridled Nail-Tail wallaby. On a positive note, efforts are encouraged to respect the wallaby’s territory, especially in ensuring that pet dogs and cats do not encroach in their areas and also by controlling their predators.
Wallabies are famously native to Australia and New Guinea, although they have also made the leap (!) to such exotic places as Hawaii, New Zealand, France…. and the not so exotic UK. The various species cover a wide range of habitats, with Rock wallabies, as the name suggests, preferring rugged terrain, whilst other species dwell on grass plains, forests, swamps, shrub, brush and heathland.
As mentioned, wallabies are smaller than their larger cousins, the kangaroos, and range from 45cm to one metre (18 to 41 inches) in length- this doesn’t include their impressive tails, which are typically 22 to 75cm long (13 to 30 inches). Like kangaroos, they have that distinctive triangular shaped body, small front limbs, larger back limbs, and that powerful, muscular tail, which they use for balance, both on the move and while taking a weight off.
They are marsupials, which means they are mammals that raise their young in pouches. Breeding season in Aus. is January to February and gestation is only 28 days – the babies are tiny, pink and hairless (about the size of a jellybean) and crawl into the mum’s pouch, where they suckle milk and grow larger, whilst being kept warm and protected. As they get bigger, they tend to leave the pouch to hop alongside mum, but will often pop right back in if they feel threatened.
Wallabies are herbivores, preferring to munch mainly on grass, leaves and vegetables, something that they are well catered for, having those large flat teeth with which to chew their vegetarian diet. They’re fond of their tucker as they are prepared to travel vast distances in their search for food and water, which can bring them together in the dry season. Amazingly, there are some kinds of wallabies who can live without a source of fresh water – they either rely on plant juices or even salt water!
These critters prefer to be active at dawn and dusk (probably the cooler times of the day – not counting the UK ones, of course!!) There are also some species that are considered nocturnal in nature, so it’s not so likely that you’d spot them in the middle of the day.
Wallabies prefer to go it alone, being mainly solitary chaps; however, they do form groups when foraging for food – a group of wallabies is known as a mob, court or troupe.
Whilst, wallabies might be considered the lesser cousin of the famous kangaroo don’t underestimate these guys – they’re an adaptable, resourceful and above all cute bunch – so not just wannabees!