The first thing an international visitor will often ask is “How can you tell a kangaroo from a wallaby?” In reality, it's not that easy.
With practice and after hundreds of sightings, most naturalists can tell them apart at a glance. But how can a casual observer tell?
Macropods* – the kangaroos and wallabies – are all quite closely related. A huge 90kg Eastern Grey Kangaroo is very similar in most ways to a tiny 4kg Quokka.
Size is the main thing that separates the species called kangaroos from the species called wallabies. In the field, though, size is not that helpful. Most young kangaroos are about the same size as adult wallabies. So a naturalist often uses behaviour, body shape and colour to identify species.
In Victoria, it is fairly easy. Basically, we have one kangaroo – the Eastern Grey - and two wallabies – the Swamp Wallaby and the Red-necked Wallaby. It is a bit more complicated than that in some places (see note on location below), but that's the general rule.
The first and quickest method is behavioural – are they in a group of 5 or more animals?
Kangaroos are highly social and are usually in groups (mobs) with members of different ages and sizes. Sometimes you need to look a bit through the bush to see the others. A small kangaroo (less than waist-high on an adult human) will not usually be alone because they are a baby. Baby kangaroos should always be with their mother.
Wallabies in Victoria are often solitary – Swamp Wallabies are usually seen alone or with one other, Red-necked Wallabies can be seen in groups of 4 or 5 but rarely more.
Key to Victorian macropods:
Appearance: Mid grey body colour, slightly rufous neck & head, silver belly and tail, white cheek stripe and a dark nose colouring that extends right up the face to near the eyes, dark patches on tips of ears.
Where they live: coastal Victoria, along the Great Ocean Road to the Vic-SA border and inland to the Grampians, East Gippsland east of Lakes Entrance along the coast right into the mountains.
Appearance: Dark grey to chocolate brown back & head, rufous belly, dark face with pale cheek stripes, very dark,long, almost untapered tail.
Where they live: most of Victoria except the north and inland far west. You won't see them much north of Bendigo.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo:
Appearance: Quite even light to mid grey body colour (can be slightly rufous in males), silver belly, no contrasting stripes or strong markings, no cheek stripe, tapered tail same as body colour, becoming darker towards tip
Where they live: most of Victoria except the inland far west
*Note on location:
Qu 1. Was the animal seen in or near the Murray Sunset National Park, Hattah Kulkyne NP, or near the Murray River south to Echuca?
Yes – could be Red Kangaroo or a Western Grey Kangaroo
Qu 2. Was the animal seen in or west of The Grampians NP, in the Little Desert, Wyperfeld NPs or near Nelson on the Vic-SA border?
Yes – could be a Western Grey Kangaroo
Qu 3. Was the animal very small, and seen in thick scrub or rainforest in East Gippsland, or along the Victorian coast (eg in the Otways)? Did it look a bit like a bandicoot?
Yes – could be a potoroo. Long-footed Potoroo lives only in East Gippsland around Manorina, Bemm River and a few spots in the high country; Long-nosed Potoroo lives right along the coast and can be seen at Cape Conran, Wilsons Prom, Maits Rest and other places in the Otways.
*Macropods are all the animals in the family Macropodidae. Macropod means 'big foot'. It includes Kangaroos, Wallabies, Quokka, Hare-wallabies, Rock-wallabies and Tree-kangaroos.