Kangaroo Comeback – National Geographic

The red kangaroo powerful, comical engaging this is the desertdwelling symbol of Australia But kangaroos can be found almostanywhere down under They're up in trees.

On the forest floor.

And can even be found on the rocks But all the kangaroos face danger This is the story of a motherand her Joey and how he comes into his own There is tenderness herein the desert and the harsh reality of survival Persecuted by some, revered by others the red kangaroo has astonishingtales to tell This is Australia, the driestinhabited continent on earth Sixty million years ago this land began its final breakfrom the rest of the world evolving along a path all its own Today, its vast, open interior liesnaked in the sun a land from another place in time It's unforgiving here, not forthe faint of heart and survival means marching toa different beat But this dry, hostile landscapeis not devoid of life it's home to one of the mostastonishing creatures on earth angaroos live in New Guineaand Australia yet their name is known far and wide But while the world may knowa 'roo when it sees one to science, they're stillsomething of a riddle You might think nothing this bigis supposed to hop But kangaroos do it with speedand agility Six-foot marvels of efficientlocomotion they emerged from the rain forest then spread over a continentwhile adapting to desert heat This is the story of thered kangaroo an amazing tale from theland down under It's summertime in the outback And the 'roos can be foundwhere there is food Most red kangaroos are redin name only the females and youngsters tend to be gray The 'roos look like they'recongregating in groups but it's food, not the company that draws them together For kangaroos the most powerful social bond isbetween a mother and her young And like many of Australia'sastonishing mammals joeys are raised in a pouch They spend the first eight monthsof their fascinating lives living in a built-in nursery This youngster needs a taste oflife outside the pouch his mother's nearly burstingat the seams A wedgetailed eagle waits for his debut but it's not here to wishhim good luck Joey doesn't care who's in attendance He's not in a hurry to come out His mother has other ideas She dumps him out in a tangled heap For the first timehe sets foot in the world But the place is not to his liking The eagle watches his entranceand exit It's following the showwith keen eyes A six-foot wingspanand powerful talons make the wedgetaila dangerous observer For young kangaroos that areclumsy or careless death can descend from the sky Shade is precious in the desert heat To cool themselves, kangarooslick their skin where blood vessels run closeto the surface Getting comfortable can be a biggerproblem especially with a pouch full to the brim A joey's world revolves aroundits mother relationships don't get much closer than this The kangaroos languish lt'll be nightfall before there'sany relief from the heat This old male decides to lay downafternoon stakes he's digging a hollow to resthis giant hips For the joey, a tail in the face isworth the security of the pouch He's safe from predators and free to keep an eye onthe goings on His mother's portable nursery the hallmark of most marsupials originated in the dinosaur age One hundred million years agorain forest blanketed this land Only small slivers of greenstill remain lush shrinking Edens clinging toan island continent's edges In places no more than 30 miles wide these ancient rain forestsare endangered But it was in places like these that tiny marsupials first madetheir Australian appearance Exactly how they lived in thisisolated world is a subject for debate But there's no dispute that evidenceof marsupial origins can still be found here today The kangaroo's ancestors startedout in trees much like this mountain brushtailed possum which moves through the brancheson all fours The first marsupials did raisetheir young in a pouch but a tree-bound existence madethem different in many ways angaroo ancestors were probablygood climbers with long toes sharp claws, and prehensile tails They may have started out asleaf-eaters but leaves are low in nutritionand difficult to digest So perhaps Joey's ancestors venturedout of the trees in search of sweeter stuff The dinosaurs were gone by thenbut other deadly reptiles remained This carpet python is lookingfor a meal And possums have long been a favorite The possum's keen hearing is nomatch for such stealth The possum escapes with littlemore than a good scare but next time, its luck may not hold It was 15 million years ago when the kangaroo's ancestors moveddown to the forest floor Here beneath the canopyshaded from heat many animals are active all day And in this rich, green, jungle store there's something for everyone to eat The musky rat-kangaroo is the smallest and most primitive of Joey'sliving relatives Weighing in at only one pound it's the only kangaroothat doesn't hop Rat kangaroos live mainlyon the ground They don't use those tailsfor climbing but for gathering nest-buildingmaterials And those long, grasping toes are great for handling a fruit andinsect based diet Another ancient denizen ofthe forest arrives and the little rat kangaroo beatsa hasty retreat The cassowary is an unusual animal that has changed little in millionsof years These large, flightless birds canbe over five feet tall and it's the males that look afterthe young Shy birds, these giants shrinkfrom confrontation unless there's a threatto their young Using their huge claws cassowaries have been known to killhumans in defense of their chicks But this primeval world wherekangaroos evolved has been disappearing from Australiafor millennia And most kangaroos have long sinceadapted to harsher stuff Out in the bush, the days of highsummer have passed The red kangaroos are more activeduring the day But our joey still spends most ofhis time in the pouch Older ones are venturing out toenjoy the cooler weather Red kangaroos are affectionate mothers She grooms him every day always keeping her eyes peeledfor danger She knows he's still small enoughto lure unwanted attention There is reason for her caution The wedgetailed eagle is nearby When the bird takes off mothers fold their joeys backinto the pouch With no prospects in the offing the eagle returns to her nest tosee to her own family business Her chicks are voracious eaters They love kangaroo meat But there's competition in thepredatory arena Australia's wild dog, the dingo also lurks wherever kangaroos gather So the eagle must set out again Wedgetails are partial to young joeys but won't take on protectivemothers to get at them Soon, he'll be as much of a handfulas the other joey who's already out and about Once again, Joey's mothersenses trouble And her instincts are usuallyon the mark Not far off, the eagle has claimeda young kangaroo and Joey's mother decides to depart But wedgetailed eagles have familiesto feed as well And these two are anxious to eat She brings them torn off sliversof meat gently feeding the chicks froma fearsome beak Nothing much has changed for therest of the kangaroos The young males play the adults relax Many settle in for a regulardaytime snooze But Joey's got other ideas He's up now, so his mother must rouseherself to stand guard Joey looks big enough to be weaned He has taken to sticking just hishead in the pouch sometimes nursing sometimes only for comfort The kangaroos are having aquiet afternoon For the most part, they just sitaround or dust-bathe For the first time Joey's mother allows him to wandermore than an arm's length away He's always been a fine scratcher But he's still an uncertain walkerat best angaroos are built for hopping They look ungainly movingat slower speeds Young males play-fight forhours each day This comical pair probablywon't hurt each other but someday, they may fightin earnest for mating rights Though he's still nursing Joey wants to try a mouthfulof grass and gets a thorn in the nosefor his trouble It will be a while before he'stuned to this landscape but he just learned a valuable lesson He turns to a more familiar source But Mother isn't her usualwelcoming self She controls her pouch withpowerful muscles and easily ejects her joey His weaning has begun From now on, he'll do more of hisfeeding from outside In time, Joey will join thesesparring matches Using their tails for balance the young kangaroos stand upright wrestling with forearms and pawingat heads and shoulders They throw their heads back protecting themselvesfrom sharp claws A passing eagle, headed backto a recent kill stops to survey the scene Her arrival sends Joey diving headfirst into the pouch All the kangaroos are wary But with hungry chicks to feed the eagle returns to the dead joey Apart from human hunters only the eagle and the dingo nowregularly pursue red kangaroos But huge lizards and even marsupiallions may have fed on Joey's ancestors Giants once roamed this landscape Their legacy today is a ferocious flesh-eating marsupial now found only on Australia's companionisland Tasmania Not known for their table manners Tasmanian devils snarland snap even when there's plenty to go around The devils are gorging ona mid-sized kangaroo usually called a wallaby And the ruckus alerts anotherkangaroo cousin that it's time to take cover This little hopper isa Tasmanian bettong Her youngster, too largefor the pouch keeps to the nest whenshe forages The smaller devil, a female also has young who have growntoo large for her pouch From the safety of a hollow log the young ones wait impatientlyfor their dinner As quiet settles on the forest the sprightly bettongs get backto business Hopping probably originatedin kangaroos like these: Perhaps the motion confused predators giving the small 'roos a chanceat escape But it was on the open plains that the kangaroos' singular wayof getting about probably came into its own Scientists know that hopping can befar more efficient than running When a kangaroo hits the ground its hind legs store energy likecompacted springs The energy helps propel the kangarooupwards for the next hop The motion also accordions the'roo's lungs in and out so the animal wastes no effortwhile breathing Scientists haven't solved the mysteryof how kangaroos went from four legs to two But the Aborigines have long hadtheir own explanations One ancient myth holds that while making its four leggedway through the brush a kangaroo heard sounds it hadnever heard before It followed the enchanting music until it came upon humanbeings singing and dancing on two feet The kangaroo stood up on feetof its own then began to copy their movements It burst from hiding in a frenzy intending to join the ceremonyaround the fire But the people were angry They fell upon the proud animaldetermined that it should die Then a spirit voice boomedfrom the heavens telling them to release the kangarooand cherish him as a brother While hopping earned kangaroosa special place in the Aboriginal Dreamtime it also propelled them into someof the most unlikely places This beautiful little kangaroo is a yellow footed rock wallaby They show off their mountaineeringskills wherever cliffs jut out ofAustralia's vast desert land Living in large colonies the rock wallabies shelterin caves along the rocks Shady crevices harbor vegetationyear-round But water can be a problem To get it, they sometimes descendto where rain collects below Wedgetailed eagles prey on rockwallabies, too Youngsters waiting on the cliffssometimes wander into the open Only adults descend to drink Young ones too big for the pouchmust stay behind In just a few minutes she'll drink a tenth of her weightin water Then she'll hurry back to her joey Thirsty joeys drink straightfrom mother's mouth Like their big red cousinson the plains young rock wallabies spend hoursin mock battle And while the children play some adults engage in courtship But this male's gentle ardor isgetting him nowhere The children, oblivious, play on He's nothing if not persistent But she'll have none of it Other adults bask lazily in theearly morning light Long eyelashes my help screenout the harsh sun and discourage flies Before retreating into the coolcaves for the day the wallabies sunbathe As the sun warms the cliff face they head for their midday hideouts The eagle will have no more chancesat them today It wheels and heads for the plains and its larger kangaroo fare Joey's growing like a desert weed and sporting a much redder coat Each day he spends less timein the pouch and no longer clings to his motherwhen out This is a dangerous time for Joey He's too big for his mother to carryif she has to run away and reason to run is never far off A hungry dingo is slinking about while Joey's busy grooming himself His mother calls Joey to her side Neither one sees the dingo approachingthrough the brush For a moment, a young male freezes His panic proves contagious Mother and Joey make their getawaytoo The dingo's no slouch when it comesto speed but the 'roos reach 35 milesper hour Dingoes have better luck huntingin packs when they're after large kangaroos But when smaller game are plentiful they tend to hunt alone Safely away from the wild dog Mother lets Joey back into thecomforting pouch Nearby, a big male paces nervously He's caught the scent of yetanother danger Drifting smoke Again, the action of one kangarootriggers the flight of others This time they've been frightenedby fire and they're racing to get away But this is no wildfirelt' a weapon The Aborigines have been using fireto hunt for thousands of years They are after a favorite delicacya lizard called a goanna Some seek refuge from the flamein trees others go underground Here, women use sticks to locateescape tunnels then unearth the lizards usingtin cans A goanna for the barbie is reasonfor celebration but these old ways are disappearing Today fewer Aborigines use fireto hunt and ironically, some kangaroos arepaying the price The little rufus-hair wallaby dependson spinifex bushes that the Aborigines burn It needs their fires to thrive They use the old bushes for shelter But fire promotes the new growththat feeds the wallaby and these little spinifex mice The wallaby eats the bushes'young leaves The mice take the seeds The wallaby burrows into older bushes which bristle with spiky defenses But these thorny refuges havebeen no match against the upheaval of the lasttwo centuries Since Europeans arrived in 1788 almost half of Australia's kangaroospecies have been declared extinct endangered, or vulnerable The whites brought foreign animalsby the boatload They converted vast areas of landto grazing changing the landscape forever Unlike the soft-footed kangaroos hard-hooved sheep and cattle woreaway the desert scrub and soil Livestock paths quickly erodedinto ravines pastures became wastelands Rabbits, introduced for the benefitof hunters bred out of control Miles of fences went up in a vainattempt to contain them Today, those same fences bewildermigrating herds of native animals like the emu Inevitably, rats and mice accompaniedthe Europeans as did the domestic cat.

Which quickly developed a tastefor small kangaroos So did the fox They continue to take a dreadfultoll on the kangaroo Now many of the smaller speciesface uncertain futures But for some kangaroos, the Europeansprovided a bonanza They dug water bores throughout thedesert to supply their livestock and the red kangaroo has benefittedever since One 19th century naturalist spottedso few red kangaroos that he predicted theirultimate demise But thanks to the permanentwater supply the population boomed When water is readily availableto red kangaroos they breed like there's no tomorrow Joey's only been out of the pouchfor two days but his mother is about to givebirth again A pink embryo, the size of a bean makes its first appearance Blind and deaf it must somehow find its way tothe mother's pouch or perish lts hind limbs, destined forenormity someday are now just useless buds It must use its tiny forelimbsto drag itself through the tangled forest ofits mother's fur Instinct keeps it moving upagainst the pull of gravity The epic, six-inch journeytakes over three minutes Once inside the pouchit searches out the nipples Joey's brother was actuallyconceived many months ago but remained in suspended animation while Mother tended to Joey himself It is a miraculous processthe key to reproductive success While a mother raises one joeyout of the pouch a tiny one grows inside it and a third waits on hold in the womb It's time for her to put yet anotherembryo in reserve Just two days after the birth the big reds start sniffing aroundagain a sign she's already in heat Mother won't let Joey intothe pouch anymore but she still nurses himoccasionally Amazingly, she now produces two kindsof milk one for the embryo another for Joey Her condition sets some of themales to jousting A big newcomer collared by scientists to trackhis wanderings has thrown his hat into the ring He's over six feet tall andclearly dominates the contest By kangaroo Queensberry rules only the subdominant male kicks giving away his inferior position Mother, now eating for three andready to make it four grazes continuously But fortunately, Joey increasinglyfends for himself The very biggest of the males nowfinds Mother irresistible He's huge She appears to ignore hispersistent attentions Then, her scent attractsanother suitor But the dominant old male scoffsat competition From a distance Joey watches the proceedings The result of this mating willgrow for a few days then become dormant until Joey'sbrother is out of the pouch With such an ingenious breeding scheme it is no wonder red kangaroonumbers exploded once humans supplied a permanentsource of water Every year, survey teams take tothe air to count the reds Their reports will determine thenumber of 'roos that can be hunted legallythe following year Strewn over the vast harsh desertat the center of Australia red kangaroos now number closeto ten million Out in the open Mother and Joey quickly recoverfrom their fright at the plane Others inevitably encounter thethousands of miles of fencing that crisscross the desert.

And sometimes these encounters are deadly Australia's kangaroo populationis booming and several million are culledeach year Mother and Joey freezecaught in the hunter's lights But they're not the quarryhe seeks The hunter has his sightson huge red males Culling kangaroos strikesmany people as cruel Others argue it's no cruelerthan slaughtering livestock Given Australia's delicatedesert ecology the kangaroo harvest may provemore sustainable than raising sheep and cattle Aside from hunters' bullets kangaroos face anothernighttime hazard thousands are killed each yearon desert highways Mother and Joey are safethe next day but picking up dangerous habits Strips of green growth parallelAustralia's roads places where the runoff from occasionalrain nurtures fresh grasses Feeding along roadsides at night kangaroos often blunder intooncoming vehicles The sheer numbers of red kangaroos makes this an all too common sight But in a very different partof Australia there are still rare kangaroosthat few people have ever seen Here, in one of the remaining slicesof primeval forest the kangaroo story comes full circle This is Mount Finnigan a place ofreverence for Aborigines and one of the last strongholds of one of Joey's mostextraordinary relatives It takes patience to catch a glimpseof this elusive creature and a healthy measure of luck An experienced woodsman recognizestelltale claw marks leading up into the canopy There it is.

Bennett's tree kangaroo Millions of years after kangarooscame down out of trees the Bennetts went back up In evolutionary terms, they haven'tbeen up there very long And those big hind feet seem illsuited to life among the leaves While a mother forages her joey clings uncertainly toa nearby vine They look awkward and out ofplace up here but tree kangaroos are very acrobatic They can make spectacular leapsof 20 feet from limb to limb and can safely catapult 60 feetdown if startled Remarkably, another kind ofkangaroo has also taken to life in the treetops This is Lumholtz's tree kangaroo and like their ground-based cousins Mother and joey are quite affectionate As they walk, they move their hindlegs independently something most 'roos don't do But nothing compares to big redsin the desert where the hop still reigns supreme Joey's quickly approachinghis mother's size Her younger joey has recently startedtaking his first peak at the world and will soon outstrip his brotherin the quest for Mother's attention Joey must now look after himself and begin mixing it up with otheryoung males Right on schedule he has taken an interest in jousting Tentatively, he approaches the fray And while his mother looks on he gets into his first dust-up Joey is beginning to look the part He has all the makings of a big red Turning adversity into advantage the red kangaroo has flourishedeven as its kangaroo cousins have struggled or disappeared altogether This pouch-raised powerhouse isa marvel of natural engineering It inherited the harsh expanseof Australia's desert and made the landscape its own.

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