One of the distinguishing features of the kangaroo, the most prominent of Australia’s endemic marsupials, is its dominant means of locomotion. Because they are incapable of moving one leg independently of the other, kangaroos propel themselves across grasslands and maneuver through wooded areas by hopping on both feet. No other animal of comparable size relies on such movement, called saltation, to get around.
Kangaroos, along with wallabies and other related marsupial species, compose a taxonomic family called Macropodidae, which translates to “big feet” in Latin. The term aptly describes the strong yet narrow hind limbs of kangaroos, which culminate in feet that are significantly larger than their front paws. Each foot has four toes, the second and third of which are fused together. The fourth toe is the largest and supports most of a kangaroo's weight. A 3-foot sinewy tail, attached to the kangaroo's hips by powerful tendons, helps the animal maintain balance as he hops.
The kangaroo's physical features make hopping, which would otherwise be very inefficient, an effective way to get around. In a single bound, the red kangaroo, the largest marsupial species at 5 to 6 feet tall, can cover 25 feet, leaping as hight as 6 feet. Female red kangaroos, known as "blue fliers" because of the color of their coats, are lighter and swifter than their male counterparts. The grey kangaroo, which the World Wildlife Fund describes as one of the fastest species, can achieve speeds of 40 miles per hour. The higher speed a kangaroo attains while hopping, the less energy he needs to move forward. He cannot, however, hop backward.
While hopping allows kangaroos to cover a great deal of ground in a small amount of time, it is not useful in instances that call for a slower pace and movement across relatively short distances. In such cases, kangaroos resort to an alternative method of locomotion, sometimes called "crawl-walking," that entails moving their hind feet forward while using their tails and front limbs to support their bodies.
Kangaroos do most of their moving about between dusk and dawn, which is when they forage for the grasses. In the daytime, kangaroos generally relax in the shade, though red kangaroos are sometimes active during hours of sunlight. Kangaroos generally live within the confines of clearly demarcated home ranges, though they may travel beyond if food becomes scarce.
- National Geographic: Eastern Gray Kangaroo
- San Diego Zoo Animal Bytes: Kangaroo and Wallaby
- World Wildlife Fund: Red Kangaroo
- World Wildlife Fund: Grey Kangaroo
- Defenders of Wildlife: Basic Facts about Kangaroos
- University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Red Kangaroo
- University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Eastern Gray Kangaroo
- Britannica Online Encyclopedia: Kangaroo
- Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing/Getty Images