Ask people an example of a marsupial, and they will probably say kangaroo. But there are many more species of marsupials, more than three hundred. Moreover, this number is only increasing as more and more species are discovered. Until the 1990s, all these species were placed in the order of Marsupialia, but today marsupials are divided among seven orders. Most of the species live in Australia and fall into the superorder Australidelphia (including the monito del monte, which occurs in the southern Andes). The rest of the marsupials fall under superorder Ameridelphia and occur in the Americas.
What is a marsupial?
You would expect that all marsupials have a pouch, but this is not the case. Some marsupials, such as the mouse opossum, lack this handy “accessory” to transport young in. They move their offspring hidden in their fur or between skin folds. What marsupials have in common is a relatively short gestation period, averaging about thirty days. In most cases, the young do not grow in a placenta, but are fed by a so-called yolk sac and come into the world underdeveloped. Time to crawl into the pouch! Here the youngster sucks on a nipple and stays that way for the first few months. After that, the youngster is developed enough to move its mouth and let go of the nipple. In different marsupials, the composition of the mother’s milk adapts to the various stages of growth. When the youngster is big enough he leaves the safe pouch, but continues to drink milk from his mother for a while. But enough information, we would like to introduce these ten marsupials to you!
Kangaroos (Macropodidae) are the best known example of a marsupial. They live in Australia and New Guinea. Besides their pouch, it is mainly their large hind legs that catch the eye. With these they can make great leaps. The red and gray giant kangaroo are the largest species and male specimens weigh up to 80 kilograms! Females only have one young which is also called ‘joey’. The young is about 2 centimeters at birth and continues to grow in the pouch.
TTere are nearly one hundred different opossum species. The smallest is only 6.8 centimeters and the largest species, the Virginian opossum, can grow up to 55 centimeters long. Its name comes from the Native American word “apasum. This means “white animal,” but their fur can be a variety of colors, from gray to golden. Not all species of opossums have a pouch. Some have only a few skin folds for the young to hide between, and some species even lack them, such as pouch shrews.
Did you know that a koala is also called a marsupial bear? These marsupials live in eastern Australia. Koalas feed almost exclusively on eucalyptus leaves. This is unusual because these leaves are poisonous to most other animals. They also basically get their moisture from these leaves, so you will rarely see a koala drinking. It is much more likely that you will see a koala sleeping, because due to their slow metabolism, they do that for an average of twenty hours a day. Koalas do have a ‘real’ pouch, where their young spend the first six months of their lives.
One of the cutest animals in the world has to be the wombat. They live in southeastern Australia and on the island of Tasmania. Fun fact: the wombat lays cube-shaped poop. These marsupials spend much of the day in their burrows and at night they go hunting for the juiciest blades of grass. This is because the wombat is an herbivore and thus lives on a plant-based diet. Per litter, wombats usually have one young that spends quite some time in the pouch, about six to ten months. Useful: the opening of the wombat pouch points backwards, so that no dirt gets in while digging.
On Tasmania, an Australian island, lives a voracious predatory marsupial: the Tasmanian devil. Animals smaller than it are particularly hard hit, such as rodents, lizards and small kangaroos. The population is shrinking due to hunting, but a form of cancer in particular is claiming many victims. The reproductive strategy of Tasmanian devils does not really contribute to population growth either. Some twenty to thirty young are born at a time, but the pouch of mama devil can only accommodate four. And of those four, there is usually only one young that survives the first year.
6. Greater bilby
In Australia, the Easter Bunny has been replaced by the great Greater bilby. Easter Bilby sprung from the imagination of a nine-year-old girl in 1968 and was used primarily to get Australians excited about saving the long-eared pouch from extinction. Later, the Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia hooked up, an organization that researches and creates awareness of the damage done by wild (non-native) rabbits in the country. Even the chocolate specimens have been replaced with long-eared rabbits! Females, after a gestation period of thirteen to sixteen days, usually give birth to two young, which remain in the pouch for about eighty days.
Another marsupial without a pouch: the numbat or marsupial anteater. The latter name immediately reveals its favorite food, namely ants and termites. With its strong front legs and long claws it easily opens nests and then licks up the ‘delicacies’ it finds with its ten centimeter long tongue. The numbat is about the same size as a squirrel and looks a lot like it, with its bushy tail and reddish-brown fur. Unfortunately the numbat is threatened in its survival, but Australian nature organizations are doing everything they can to preserve this special species.
The sugar glider occurs in the wild on New Guinea and in Australia. These cute little creatures, which are able to hover thanks to a special flight membrane, live at night and tree sap is their main source of nutrition. Around the mating season they can use some extra energy and insects, larvae and nectar are added to the menu. One to three young are born at a time. The blind young make their way to the pouch by touch, where they remain for about seventy days, although in the last ten days their legs are often already sticking out of the pouch.
The order of marsupials consists of only two species: the common marsupial and the lesser marsupial. Both species live in Australia. The common marsupial mole in the interior of the country and the small marsupial mole along the north coast in the west of the country. Like the common mole, this marsupial digs tunnels and deep burrows underground. Also in the marsupial mole, like the wombat, the opening of the pouch points backwards, so that the animal can dig without getting soil in it.
Monito del monte
The monito del monte, or “mountain monkey,” is 8 to 13 inches tall and weighs only 16 to 31 grams. This marsupial is also known as colocolo and, as mentioned, is found in the southern Andes. In some parts of its habitat, it can get quite cold in the winter. The colocolos that live here hibernate. It builds up the reserves for this in its tail root. It is the only living member of the order Microbiotheria. The monito del monte has no pouch and therefore the young (one to five per litter) cling to the back of their mothers. So it can get pretty crowded there! The superstitious locals are not so happy if they find this animal in their home, because it would bring bad luck. There are even stories that people have set fire to their own house, after a monito del monte visited it. Strange, isn’t it, when you see that cute little head?