Night was falling when we left our hotel in a small town in northern Queensland. By the time we reached the forest inside the adjacent national park it was dark. This was Queensland Wet Tropics, a rainforest of tall, dense trees. We stopped near a trail and started walking. Our guide led us while shining a powerful searchlight into the canopies.
Presently we caught movement on a horizontal branch high up. We stopped and trained the beam on it. The animal was negotiating the branch on its way to the next tree, its face and body turned away from us. But curiosity got the better of it and it turned towards us. Perhaps two feet long, the brown animal had inquisitive eyes. Its belly was chubby and pale. Its paws held onto the branch.
Then came the surprise – two tiny paws emerged from an opening in its belly! We were looking at a tree kangaroo, a rare nocturnal marsupial.
Marsupials are a group of mammals that carry their young in an abdominal pouch. Lacking a placenta, mothers give birth to undeveloped (premature) babies that continue their development in the pouch which contains the mother's nipples. There are about 330 species of marsupials in the world. Two-thirds are found in Australia, the rest in the Americas. Kangaroos and koalas are the best known among them.
Another fascinating marsupial I saw was the musky rat-kangaroo, at 4-5 inches the smallest marsupial of Australia, and found in only in Queensland's rainforests. It came out of the forest, looking very much like a rat, and scurried looking for food, using its nose to probe small cavities in the ground. Its movement was a curious mix of running and hopping. After it found some food it retreated into the forest.
I found it difficult to photograph kangaroos in the wild. They were skittish and hopped away as soon as they saw me, their long tails balancing their vertical frame as they quickly vanished out of sight. I had better luck with their younger cousins, wallabies. They were more common and slightly easier to approach. At a pond by the road to Kakadu National Park, I stopped near a group of wallabies. I was able to take a few photographs before the most nervous one decided to flee. The rest followed suit, but one lingered.
The rock wallaby lives in caves and rock formations. It is normally a nocturnal creature that sleeps through the day, but I was able to photograph one with its baby. Rock wallabies have dwindled in numbers and many species are now considered endangered. The specimen I saw, which was wild but habituated to humans, did not look particularly healthy. Its joey seemed soft and meek and I wondered how it would survive in the wild.
Marsupials are believed to have originated in North America. From there they spread and proliferated in South America. In prehistoric times, Australia and South America were connected to Antarctica. This provided the connection for marsupials to migrate to Australia.
Watching the variety of marsupials – and learning about their varied habitats – was eye-opening. One day I would like to see two other marsupials in the wild: the koala and the Tasmanian devil.
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