National Geographic : 1955 Oct
The Incredible Kangaroo 487 Australia's Famous Marsupial Sits on Its Tail, Fights Like a Man, Bounces Like a Steel Spring, and Graces a Coat of Arms BY DAVID H. JOHNSON Acting Curator of Mammals, National Museum, Smithsonian Institution IN 1629 the Dutch ship Batavia, carrying immigrants to the Molucca Islands, was blown far from course and smashed onto Houtman Rocks off western Australia. While the vessel's master, Francis Pelsart, was away seeking help, a band of cutthroats among the crew murdered many of their fel low castaways, stole the ship's chests of silver coin, and plotted to seize the relief vessel for a career of piracy. Forewarned, Captain Pelsart on his return managed to outwit the mutineers. He sum marily hanged all but two, who were aban doned on the mainland of Australia. White Man Meets His First Kangaroo The story of Captain Pelsart's grim experi ence might well be forgotten today were it not for the description in his journal of a strange animal he encountered in abundance on the rocky islets where he suffered shipwreck. "A species of cats," he called it, adding that it was about the size of a hare, with a head resembling that of a civet cat, a long tail, and very short forepaws like those of a monkey. "Its two hind legs, on the contrary, are upwards of half an ell in length, and it walks on... the flat of the heavy part of the leg... it sits on its hind legs, and clutches its food with its forepaws, just like a squirrel or mon key," he wrote. Today's naturalists find this report singu larly interesting, for it is the first authentic account of any member of the kangaroo fam ily. Indeed, so accurate was the Dutch sea man's description that his animal could be identified three centuries later as the Tammar wallaby, a small member of the kangaroo clan. Oddly enough, the wallabies were the first of the kangaroos that I met when I, too, went to Australia. Before leaving the land down under, however, I made the acquaint ance of many another member of this clan. As mammalogist for the Arnhem Land Ex pedition,* sponsored by the National Geo graphic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Australian Government, I wanted especially to study the kangaroos, the largest and most spectacular of the native Australian land mammals. Kangaroos are vigorous modern members of the ancient order of animals known as marsupials, which take their name from a Latin word meaning "pouch." The ones we know today carry their babies in pouches on their bellies. Long ago, during the later days of the dinosaurs, the marsupials were common mam mals. Eventually, in most places, they were superseded by the more advanced animals that dominate the earth today-the placental mam mals that bear their young so well developed that they do not need pouches for protection. But in Australia, cut off from other con tinents ages ago, advanced types of mammals were excluded, and the marsupials continued to prosper. As a result, the continent remained a kind of natural zoo of primitive mammals, includ ing not only the marsupials, but such oddities as the egg-laying platypus.t Kangaroos Come in Many Sizes Kangaroos lacked competition from hoofed animals such as deer, antelope, and bison, and had few enemies; thus they developed into a multitude of types. Today they occupy many kinds of environment: some climb trees (page 495); some bound gracefully among rocks and cliffs with the sure-footedness of a chamois; some prefer swamps; some take kindly to the desert. We have counted more than 50 species. They range in size from the musky-rat kan garoo of Queensland, little more than a foot long, to the great red kangaroo of the plains, which sometimes towers 7 feet (unlike hu mans, male kangaroos continue growing after maturity). All of them live in Australia and *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Exploring Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Charles P. Mountford, December, 1949; and "Cruise to Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Howell Walker, September, 1949. t See "Australia's Patchwork Creature, the Platy pus," by Charles H. Holmes, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1939.