Scientists Say: Marsupial

This is a type of mammal known for carrying its babies in a pouch

a mother kangaroo stands in a grassland with a baby kangaroo poking its head out of her pouch

Perhaps the most iconic marsupial is the kangaroo. This mama kangaroo is toting her baby, or joey, around in her pouch.

Rene Becerril/EyeEm/Getty Images

Marsupial (noun, “Mar-SOOP-ee-uhl)

Marsupials are mammals known for carrying their young in pouches. The kangaroo is one example. Marsupials give birth to babies that are tiny and underdeveloped compared to those of other mammals. An infant kangaroo, for instance, is only the size of a jellybean. Marsupial newborns crawl straight into their mother’s pouch after they’re born. There, they drink their mother’s milk and continue to grow.

Some marsupials, like kangaroos, have pouches that open forward. Others, such as wombats, have pouches that open toward the mother’s tail. (That prevents mama wombat from throwing dirt on her baby as she digs.) Not all marsupials have pouches. Some simply have a fold of skin that protects their young while they suckle.

There are about 300 species of marsupials. Most live in Australia and nearby islands. Those include koalas, quolls and Tasmanian devils. Others live in the Americas. The United States and Canada, for instance, are home to opossums. The largest marsupial is the red kangaroo, which can grow up to about two meters (6.6 feet) tall. The smallest is the mousey planigale. That critter is barely 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) long.

Marsupials tend to have good hearing and a good sense of smell. That comes in handy, since they are often active when it’s dark. Most walk on the ground or climb trees. But one, the yapok of South America, is a swimmer. Marsupials are as diverse as the places they live.

In a sentence

An attempt to save an endangered marsupial in Australia called the northern quoll may have put the animals at greater risk.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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