By Dr. Becker
Marsupials, sometimes thought of as “pouched mammals,” give birth prematurely to live young, but they are not fully developed and require more time to grow before they can be on their own. The marsupials’ pouch, or marsupium, becomes the baby’s home for weeks or months, until it is more developed and able to live independently.
When a marsupial gives birth, the offspring (still in the embryo stage) climbs from the birth canal into the pouch and attaches to the mother’s nipple. It stays there attached to the nipple for the rest of its developmental period, which in most other mammals occurs while still in the womb. They give birth early because they do not develop a placenta, which allows for a longer gestation period in utero.
There are about 200 species of marsupials, including the kangaroo, but only 70 species live in the Americas (and only one, the opossum, lives in North America).1 If you want to learn more, Paw Nation has compiled some fascinating facts about these intriguing animals.2
Koalas live in eastern Australia and spend much of their time in eucalyptus trees, lounging, eating and sleeping (for up to 18 hours a day). They eat up to two pounds of leaves per day.
Kangaroos are native to Australia and the largest variety, the red kangaroo, can grow to 5 feet tall and 200 pounds. Their legs do not move independently, which is why they hop instead of walk, and males use their tails for balance while “boxing” their rivals (usually over potential mates).
The wallaby resembles a smaller-version of the kangaroo. Their young take up to two months before they can leave their mothers’ pouches, but they will return whenever threatened. Wallabies are herbivores that eat grasses and plants.
Bandicoots resemble rats but grow to the size of a small rabbit. These omnivores use their pointed noses to root out insects, earthworms, and fungi to eat. Mothers give birth to up to five young, who will spend up to three months inside her pouch before they can live independently.
Possums (not to be confused with opossums) are native to Australia and have thick, soft fur. They’re typically nocturnal and eat leaves, primarily, along with insects and small mammals.
6. Tasmanian Devil
Tasmanian devils are native to Tasmania. These carnivorous marsupials have powerful jaws to hunt for prey and also scavenge for food. They hunt primarily at night.
Wombats burrow underground and create complex tunnel-and-chamber complexes. Some live solitarily while others live together in colonies. Wombats feed at night, mainly on grasses, bark, and other vegetation.
8. Sugar Glider
Sugar gliders are squirrel-like creatures that have a thin membrane (called a patagium) between their front and back legs. This allows them to glide between tree branches. Sugar gliders are nocturnal and eat tree sap, insects, and small vertebrates.
Numbats eat only termites (up to 20,000 a day) and live in forests, often near termite mounds. Numbats have reddish-brown fur that changes into brown with white stripes down its tail. Due to extensive loss of habitat, they are an endangered species.
Quolls are nocturnal carnivorous marsupials that live in Australia. They eat insects, small mammals, vertebrates, and fruit. Quolls have a short lifespan of two to five years and their numbers have been dwindling due to habitat loss and feral foxes and cats.