What is a Marsupial?
The Marsupials are a special group of mammals. They live mostly in Australia and South America, and include kangaroos, koalas, possums and opossums, and many others. Like all mammals,
- Marsupials give milk to their babies,
- Marsupials have skin and hair,
- Marsupials keep their body at (more or less) a constant temperature.
The difference between marsupials and other types of mammals is how they look after their babies. Most mammals are placental mammals – when the mother has babies inside, she grows a placenta to help her feed the baby while it’s still inside her body. As a result, many baby mammals have grown up a lot even before they are born – for example, the baby giraffe can walk only a few hours after birth.
Marsupials are different. When a marsupial is born, it makes its way straight away to its mother’s pouch. If it doesn’t get there, it won’t survive. It lives completely inside the pouch until it is ready to face the outside world – weeks or months later. All marsupials have a pouch, not just the kangaroo.
The third group of mammals, the Monotremes, actually lay eggs!
What is the world’s biggest marsupial?
The world’s biggest living marsupial is the Red Kangaroo , that lives throughout the deserts of Australia. On average, the males grow to 1.4 metres (4.6 ft) long, and weigh 85 kg (185 lb), the females to 1.1 metres (3.6 ft) – but large ones can be more than 50% bigger than this!
The biggest ever marsupial was a huge wombat-like creature, standing 6 feet (2 metres) tall, and weighing about 2.5 tons. Scientists today call it Diprotodon , which means “two front teeth”.
What kinds of marsupials are there?
There are about 334 different types of marsupial, grouped into seven groups called “Orders” (there are another two orders that have completely died out and are no more).
- The Opossoms of South America, called Didelphimorphia, live in trees and eat anything. They have a strong immune system, and can even survive the bite of a rattlesnake! They also have more teeth than any other land mammal.
- The Shrew Opossums, called Paucituberculata, also live in South America. They look like small Opossums.
- The Monito del Monte (which means Little Mountain Monkey) is the only living animal in the order Microbiotheria. It is about the size of a mouse, but with a longer, thicker, more useful tail and different-shaped head.
- Dasyuromorphia means “Hairy tail”. This group includes many carnivorous marsupials from Australia, including Quolls, Numbats, the extinct Tasmanian tiger (or Thylacine), and the endangered Tasmanian Devil.
- There are only two species of Notoryctemorphia, or Marsupial Mole. They are very hard to tell apart. Their pouches face backwards, so they don’t get filled with sand as they burrow through the desert dunes of Australia.
- The Bilby and the 19 types of Bandicoot belong to a group called Peramelemorphia.
- The Diprotodontia contains all the most famous Australian marsupials – the kangaroos and koalas, as well as the wallabies, possums and wombats. They get their name from the gree words for “two front teeth”. The world’s largest marsupial, the Red Kangaroo , as well as the largest ever marsupial, the Diprotodon , both belong to this order.