All you ever wanted to know about these species and more, is now available in one new book!
Have you ever wondered where exactly in the wild you might see a Bilby? Or what they eat? Or what has caused the declines in so many populations that we fundraise with Chocolate Bilbies every Easter? Previously, to find this information you would have needed to look at many different sources. But with the recent publication of the 5th Volume of the landmark series Handbook of the Mammals of the World, all this information and more (as well as detailed illustrations) for all living and some extinct species of marsupial and monotreme, is now available in one volume. This book is the new ‘go to’ source for comprehensive knowledge for all marsupial and monotreme species from Australia, South America and New Guinea and was compiled by experts across the world.
We were asked to co-author two chapters, on the marsupial families we work closely with, the Macropodiade (kangaroos and wallabies) and Potoroidae (potoroos and bettongs). These two groups (67 living species in total) make up the Macropodoidiea (colloquially called macropods), which are the iconic kangaroos, wallabies and rat-kangaroos found from the wet forests of Tasmania and Queensland, to the sandy deserts of central Australia, to the subalpine grasslands of New Guinea. While most famous for their unusual hopping gait, macropods also have many other unique aspects to their biology, including embroyonic diapause (suspended pregnancy), molars that migrate forwards in the jaw, continuous growth throughout life, complex sociality and remarkably efficient digestive systems. Some specialised groups have truffle-only diets, or unusual adaptations to live in rocky areas or up in trees
Writing these chapters meant drawing information from a variety of different resources to compile the most comprehensive summary of existing knowledge on the taxonomy, distribution, habitat, diet, reproduction, behaviour and conservation status of each species. The book also contains an extensive overview of the biology of each macropod family as well as their relationships with people over the millennia. Putting this information together meant reading over 1500 published studies on all the kangaroos, wallabies and rat kangaroos species. This included tracking down rare documents from the mid 17th centaury, and many of the original descriptions of these species by early European explorers and settlers. Some of these even required translation from other languages such as German, French and Dutch!
Our background research revealed that many macropod species are now well characterised but we were surprised to find sparse information on aspects of the biology of not only rare species but also of very common species (including the two Grey Kangaroos, Common Wallaroo and the Swamp Wallaby). We also discovered just how much additional research needs to be done to improve our still embryonic understanding of the unique and interesting macropod species that inhabit New Guinea. It was also apparent that macropods have a complex and at time contradictory relationships with people: being simultaneously regarded as national icons, a valuable resource and pests.
We hope that this summary will provide a valuable resource for a wide range of uses and encourage greater appreciation of the remarkable biology and diversity of this unique group of marsupials. We also hope that the identification of knowledge gaps will encourage additional research and ensure the long term survival of these unique animals.
Dr Mark Eldridge
Principal Research Scientist, Australian Museum Research Institute
Dr Greta Frankham
Acting Head, Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics, Australian Museum Research Institute