The division of macropods into kangaroos and wallabies is arbitrary: the species we call kangaroos are simply the larger animals while wallabies are generally smaller (though some can measure 1.8 metres from head to tail).
The name wallaby is derived from the Eora Aboriginal people of coastal NSW. It now refers to about 30 species of macropod found in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Many species are named after the habitat they occupy, such as Rock Wallabies and Swamp Wallabies.
All wallabies are marsupials: the young, called joeys, are raised in a pouch. Like kangaroos, their tails are long, powerful and used for balance (they're not prehensile or gripping). As the name suggests, Nail-tail Wallabies have a sharp growth on the tip of their tails.
A wallaby's powerful hind legs are used to jump long distances. Rock wallabies have feet specially modified to grip to the rugged terrain where they live.
A wallaby’s forelimbs are small and mainly used for feeding. They have a pointed snout, large ears and and a fur coat that can be coloured grey, rufous, brown, black or white.
Wallabies feature in Aboriginal creation stories – the Wallaby Dreaming story of central Australia, for instance. They also provide fur and are an important source of protein.
Where do wallabies live?
Wallabies are widespread across mainland Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea. In Australia, different species prefer different habitats.
Rock wallabies live almost exclusively in rugged terrain, along rocky hills, boulders, sandstone outcrops and caves. Other species prefer arid grassy plains, dense coastal health, open forests or rainforests. The distribution of most species has shrunk since European settlement.
If you’re from southern Australia, you may be familiar with the relatively common Agile Wallaby or the Red-necked Wallaby. Some other species are increasingly hard to come across.
Under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Black Forest Wallaby is Critically Endangered; the Proserpine Rock-wallaby is Endangered; the Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby is Near Threatened; and the mala (Rufous Hare Wallaby or Warrup) and Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby are Vulnerable to extinction. The five subspecies of Black-footed Rock-wallaby are variously listed as endangered, vulnerable or near threatened.
And sadly, some species are now extinct. The Eastern Hare Wallaby, the Crescent Nail-tail Wallaby are two species that have become extinct since European settlement.
Wallabies are herbivores and they mostly eat grass. They can also eat leaves and fruits, and other plants like ferns and herbs. When grazing, wallabies will often congregate in small groups, though most species are typically solitary. Wallabies are more active in the evening and early morning, especially those in arid areas.
Wallabies belong to the famously bizarre group of mammals known as marsupials. When born, their tiny undeveloped young are the size of a jelly bean. They crawl to their mother’s pouch, where they suckle milk from a teat. After a couple of months, they're able to leave the pouch, but will sometimes jump back in when scared!
When threatened, wallabies may thump their feet and make a hoarse noise to sound an alarm to others. They can also deliver a forceful kick with their back legs – a technique that’s also used by males when fighting each other.
Threats to wallabies
Wallabies have few natural predators: Dingoes, Wedge-tailed Eagles and Tasmanian Devils. But the introduction of feral predators – foxes, cats and dogs – has been disastrous for many species, pushing some to the brink of extinction.
Introduced herbivores – rabbits, sheep, goats and cattle – compete with wallabies for food, particularly problematic in arid areas where food can be scarce.
Agricultural development has led to land clearing and habitat loss, fragmentation or degradation – major threats for extant wallaby species. Some are considered an agricultural pest. Finally, changes in traditional burning regimes has changed grassland habitats in particular: this has reduced wallabies’ food source, and increased the number of devastating hot summer bushfires.
What's Bush Heritage doing?
We have wallabies on the vast majority of our reserves. We’re happy to have seen the endangered Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby on Goonderoo in Queensland. The Threatened Black-Gloved Wallaby occurs on our Gondwana Link properties and Kojonup. We're revegetating cleared farmland to create more wallaby habitat and our monitoring shows they're using it.
The Near Threatened Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby has also been spotted on Boolcoomatta in South Australia.
We look after these wallabies by destocking properties, controlling feral herbivores, and baiting and shooting feral predators like foxes. By reintroducing fire regimes more akin to traditional practices, we’re helping restore grasslands that provide food for wallabies.
Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work. Most of our operating costs are funded by generous individuals. Donations over $2 are tax-deductible and we can't thank you enough for your support.