Red kangaroo (Macropus rufus)
|Size||Male head-body length: 130 - 160 cm (2)|
Female head-body length: 85 - 105 cm (2)
Male tail length: 100 - 120 cm (2)
Female tail length: 65 - 85 cm (2)
Male weight: up to 90 kg (3)
Female weight: up to 40 kg (3)
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
An iconic symbol of the Australian outback, the red kangaroo is the largest living marsupial (2) (4), and one of the most abundant and striking of all kangaroos (3) (5). Standing up to an impressive two metres tall (2), the male red kangaroo is much larger and more powerfully muscled than the female, with larger shoulders and forearms, more heavily clawed forepaws, and thickened skin over the belly, which helps absorb the impact of kicks during fights (4) (6). The male also has a rather large, bow-shaped nose (3).
As the name suggests, the male red kangaroo is typically a rich reddish-brown in colour, while the female is more bluish-grey. However, some red females and bluish-grey males also occur, as well as individuals of intermediate shade (2) (3) (4) (6). The underside of the body and the lower parts of the limbs are light grey to white, the paws and toes are dark, and the tip of the tail is pale, helping to distinguish this species from the grey kangaroos, which have dark tail tips (3). In both sexes, the face is marked with a black and white patch on the side of the muzzle and a broad white stripe along the cheek, while the tip of the nose is partially naked, and is dusky in colour (2) (3) (4) (7).
The red kangaroo is distributed throughout the arid regions of mainland Australia, excluding the extreme north, east coast, and extreme southwest of the country (1) (2) (3) (5) (7).
This kangaroo occurs in arid and semi-arid habitats, in areas of less than 500 to 800 mm annual rainfall (1) (3) (5). It may be found in scrubland, grassland, woodland and desert, tending to prefer open grassy plains with scattered trees for shade and shelter (2) (3) (5) (7).
The red kangaroo is most active from late afternoon to early morning, resting in the shade during the heat of the day (2) (4), and sometimes licking the forearms to cool the body through evaporation (7). The powerful, enlarged hindquarters enable the familiar leaping mode of locomotion, and the red kangaroo may be able to reach top speeds of up to 64 kilometres per hour (4), covering up to 9 metres with each leap (2). The diet consists of grasses, herbs and shrubs, with a preference for green feed, such as newly sprouted grasses (1) (4) (5), and the red kangaroo may travel long distances in response to food availability (1) (2) (5). This species usually lives alone or in small groups of up to ten, comprising mainly females with young, plus one or more males. However, larger, loose groups, or ‘mobs’, may gather to feed or drink (2) (4) (5).
The red kangaroo is an opportunistic breeder, able to breed year-round when conditions are favourable, but often ceasing reproduction during drought (2) (5) (8). The males engage in ritualised ‘boxing’ in order to gain temporary control of females in oestrus, wrestling with the forelimbs around the opponent’s shoulders and kicking with the powerful hindlimbs (2) (4) (5) (6). The female usually gives birth to a single young, after a gestation period of around 32 to 34 days (2) (9). At birth, the newborn weighs a mere 0.75 grams, and takes about three minutes to make its way, unaided, through the female’s fur and into the pouch, where it attaches to a teat for the next 70 days of development (2) (6) (9). The young, or joey, first protrudes its head from the pouch at 150 days, emerging for short periods at 190 days, and permanently leaving the pouch at 235 to 240 days (2) (9), although still suckling for another 3 to 4 months (4). Sexual maturity is reached at around 15 to 24 months, and lifespan may be up to 27 years (2) (4).
The female red kangaroo is able to become pregnant again within days of giving birth. However, in a process known as embryonic diapause, the new embryo remains dormant until the first young is about 200 days old, or sooner if the first young is lost. The embryo then resumes development and is born around 31 days later, within about a day of the first young permanently leaving the pouch. The female is then able to mate again (2) (4) (5) (6) (9). As a result of this process, when conditions are good the female can simultaneously support a suckling young outside the pouch, a suckling young within the pouch, and a dormant or developing embryo, and any young lost during drought can quickly be replaced when conditions improve (2) (5) (6).
There are no major threats to the red kangaroo, and it remains a widely distributed and abundant species, which has generally benefitted from the spread of agriculture and the associated reduction in dingo numbers and provision of artificial watering holes for livestock (1) (2) (6) (7). Although intensive agriculture is not beneficial to the species, little of its habitat has so far been affected by this (10). However, some argue that competition with livestock and introduced rabbits, particularly during drought conditions, could present a threat (2).
Like other large kangaroo species, the red kangaroo is so numerous in some areas that it is subject to regulated commercial harvesting for its meat and hides, and is sometimes also shot as a pest (1) (2) (6) (7) (10). There is some debate over whether kangaroo populations can sustain present hunting levels, especially in light of human habitat modification and drought (2), which may potentially be exacerbated by climate change.
The red kangaroo occurs in many protected areas across Australia (1), and, like other native wildlife, is protected by law. Hunting permits and commercial harvesting are controlled under nationally approved management plans, which aim to maintain red kangaroo populations and manage them as a renewable resource, while attempting to minimise damage to agriculture (7) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15). Commercial harvesting quotas are determined annually, and aerial surveys are regularly performed to monitor kangaroo abundance and distribution (7).
As kangaroos are popular, well-known and instantly recognisable species, much controversy and public debate has surrounded their commercial hunting (10) (16), with a key element of the debate being the welfare of pouch and dependent young-at-foot (17) (18). This has led to close attention being given to appropriate kangaroo management, based on scientific research, and, although still controversial, such sustainable use has been suggested as a valuable conservation tool where wildlife and human land-use requirements conflict (10). Alternatively, wildlife tourism has been proposed as a means by which kangaroos can be protected and appreciated alive, and may provide a sustainable, economically viable and less controversial option for the conservation of these iconic species (16) (19).
To find out more about the red kangaroo and its conservation see:
BBC Wildlife Finder:
Maxwell, S., Burbidge, A.A. and Morris, K.D. (1996) The 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes. Wildlife Australia, Canberra. Available at:
For more information on wildlife tourism and conservation in Australia see:
Rootourism - The Kangaroo Trail:
Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre (STCRC):
Australian Government - Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts:
Australian Wildlife Conservancy:
Authenticated (27/04/10) by Dr David B. Croft, Senior Lecturer, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales.
- Embryonic diapause: also known as delayed implantation. A reproductive strategy found in some mammals, such as some marsupial, rodent, bear and mustelid species, in which the embryo does not immediately implant in the uterus, but remains dormant, only implanting and continuing development when conditions are favourable. This strategy allows the female to give birth when survival of the offspring is more likely, such as when environmental conditions are more favourable or the previous offspring has been weaned.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Marsupial: a diverse group of mammals characterised by their reproduction, in which gestation is very short, and the female typically has a pouch (marsupium) in which the young are raised. When born, the tiny young crawls to the mother’s teats, where it attaches and stays for a variable amount of time, whilst it continues to develop. Marsupials also differ from placental mammals in their dentition.
- Oestrus: the time of ovulation (release of an egg from the ovary) in female mammals, when the female becomes receptive to males, also known as ‘heat’.
IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
- Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
- Dawson, T.J. (1995) Kangaroos: Biology of the Largest Marsupials. UNSW Press, Sydney.
- Cronin, L. (2008) Cronin’s Key Guide Australian Mammals. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
- Tyndale-Biscoe, H. (2005) Life of Marsupials. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.
- Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Department of Environment and Conservation. (2007) Red Kangaroo Management Plan. Department of Environment and Conservation, Western Australia. Available at:
- Newsome, A.E. (1965) Reproduction in natural populations of the red kangaroo, Megaleia rufa (Desmarest), in central Australia. Australian Journal of Zoology, 13: 735-759.
- Sharman, G.B. and Pilton, P.E. (1962) The life history and reproduction of the red kangaroo (Megaleia rufa). Journal of Zoology, 142: 29-48.
Pople, T. and Grigg, G. (1998) Commercial Harvesting of Kangaroos in Australia. Environment Australia, Canberra. Available at:
Department for Environment and Heritage. (2007) The Kangaroo Conservation and Management Plan for South Australia 2008 - 2012. Department for Environment and Heritage, Adelaide. Available at:
Department of Environment and Conservation. (2007) Management Plant for the Commercial Harvest of Kangaroos in Western Australia 2008 - 2012. Department of Environment and Conservation, Perth. Available at:
Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW). (2006) New South Wales Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Management Plan 2007 - 2011. Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), Sydney. Available at:
Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts. (2008) Assessment of the Conservation and Management of the Red Kangaroo Macropus rufus and Euro Macropus robustus in the Northern Territory. Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, Palmerston. Available at:
Department of Resource Management. (2010) Commercial Harvesting of Kangaroos and Wallaroos in Queensland. Department of Resource Management, Brisbane. Available at:
- Croft, D.B. (2000) Sustainable use of wildlife in western New South Wales: possibilities and problems. The Rangeland Journal, 22(1): 88-104.
- Witte, I. (2005) Kangaroos - Misunderstood and maligned reproductive miracle workers. In: Wilson, M. and Croft, D.B. (Eds.) Kangaroos: Myths and Realities. Australian Wildlife Protection Council, Melbourne.
- Croft, D.B. (2004) Kangaroo management: individuals and communities. Australian Mammalogy, 26: 101-108.
- Higginbottom, K.B., Northrope, C.L., Croft, D.B., Hill, B. and Fredline, E. (2004) The role of kangaroos in Australian tourism. Australian Mammalogy, 26: 23-31.