How Kangaroos Move and Why They Hop: An illustrated guide

hopping kangaroo at murramarang national park

Kangaroos are famous for their elegant hopping and huge jumps. What amazes me the most is their ability to effortlessly jump and hop huge distances without getting too tired. I’ve recently been to national parks in Australia where I filmed kangaroos and wallabies grazing and hopping. Then I wanted to learn more about their incredible movement skills and that got me thinking how do kangaroos move? 

Kangaroos move using their two forelimbs, two hind-limbs, and tail. Hopping kangaroos use their two muscular hind-limbs and tail, whereas grazing animals move using their forelimbs, hindlimbs, and tail. 

Do Kangaroos Walk or Hop?

Kangaroos can not really walk, but they do not always obviously hop when they are moving. You can see them slowly moving when they are grazing on open grasslands. This is called crawl-walking. We’ll look into their slow-moving procedure in a minute. 

You will most likely see a hopping kangaroo when they see you! Kangaroos are shy animals and flee when they see potential predators (like you and me). 

How Fast Can Kangaroos Move?

When kangaroos hop they are moving extremely fast. The fastest kangaroo ever seen was traveling at 64 km/h (40 mph). This speed was achieved by an eastern grey kangaroo that is native to the eastern part of Australia. There, distances are huge and traveling at speed has its benefits. 

Kangaroos move fast to travel long distances, for example, if they need to find food or water. They also move extremely fast if predators are getting close. Typical predators include dingoes, eagles, and humans. This means wild kangaroos will hop away as fast as they can if they see us. 

Their comfortable hopping speed is about 20 - 25 km/h (13 - 16 mph) and the most interesting fact is that kangaroos actually require less energy to move the faster they hop (until they’ve reached their comfortable hopping speed). 

How Do Kangaroos Hop?

Now let’s dig into the details and find out how kangaroos hop. 

There is a significant difference in whether kangaroos move slowly or fast. 

How Kangaroos Can Hop Fast

When kangaroos want to travel fast, they hop fast. Easy, right? The hind legs of kangaroos are designed to work like giant springs. That’s why it looks so effortlessly when kangaroos hop around. 

As the tendons in their hind legs strain and contract, they get about 70 % of the energy they need to bounce back. This is much more than humans can regain when they walk. You could compare hopping of kangaroos to a bouncing ball. With each bounce, it loses energy, but it still bounces. 

This means that kangaroos must put a lot less effort into bouncing because they only lose about 30 % of the energy with each bounce. 

Kangaroos, wallabies, and wallaroos also use their strong tail as a counterbalance and a counterweight.

Did you know that hopping supports their breathing?  

Kangaroos have even more benefits when they hop instead of walk. They not only require relatively little energy to hop around but hopping actively supports their breathing. If you watch their bouncing movements closely, you can see their gut moving up and down. This inflates and deflates their lungs which makes them extremely energy efficient. 

In sum, we can say that kangaroos do everything to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. 

Their slow movement is totally different

Have you ever watched kangaroos grazing on open grasslands? They rarely hop, they move slowly instead. 

You will be surprised to see what their tail is used for

Kangaroo’s slow movement works totally different compared to fast hopping. Kangaroos are certainly famous for hopping, however, they spend a great amount of time moving on their two forelimbs and two hind legs. But you might be surprised to see that they also need their strong tail to move slowly. 

When kangaroos or wallabies and wallaroos are grazing they have to move a few centimeters from time to time. They do not hop, because they would get too far away from their desired position. 

This is how kangaroos move at slow speeds (crawl-walking)

  1. Kangaroos lean forward 
  2. Their body weight is supported by their forelimbs and hind limbs
  3. They tense their tail which touches the ground
  4. Kangaroos then raise their hind limbs - their body weight is then supported by their forelimbs and tail. Their body forms a tripod. 
  5. They then pull their hind limbs slightly forward
  6. They move their hind limbs back on the ground
  7. Kangaroos then raise their forelimbs and move them forward if they continue to walk while their hind limbs and tail touch the ground

I took a video and screenshotted the most important moments to explain how a kangaroo moves slowly: 

First, the kangaroo is standing.

a kangaroo standing

The Kangaroos leans forward and uses its forelimbs to support its body weight.

the kangaroo leans forward
the kangaroo leans forward
the kangaroo raises its hind limbs

It then raises its hind limbs and at the same time, it tenses the tale which touches the ground.

the kangaroo forms a tripod

The body weight is then distributed on the forelimbs and the tale.

the kangaroo forms a tripod

The kangaroo then pulls its hind limbs slightly forward and moves them back on the ground. 

Then, the kangaroo either raises its entire body or continues to move. 

Why Kangaroos Hop Instead Of Walk

Kangaroos, like its close relatives like the wallaby and wallaroo, are native to Australia. Just like humans who live in the outback, long-distance traveling for food and water is common for kangaroos in Australia. 

They, therefore, need an energy-saving way to travel big distances. But their story started about 30 million years ago when Australia was a totally different continent. Their predecessors resembled something like possums and they were living in the trees of Australia’s rainforests and had a hard time moving on the ground. 

With time Australia got dryer and dryer and the spaces between trees, food, and water supply got bigger and bigger. Kangaroos and their predecessors learned to travel long distances as efficiently as possible in order to survive. 

Back in the days when their predecessors were living in trees they didn’t need to be good at walking, but they transformed their ability to hop and bounce to move efficiently on the ground. 

How do tree kangaroos move?

The hind legs of tree kangaroos are shorter and they can actually move backward. Additionally, they have better-developed claws to get a better grip in the trees. Tree-kangaroos live like their name would suggest, in the trees but they are rarely found in the wild. 

How far can kangaroos hop?

Kangaroos can cover up to 7 meters (15 ft) in a single hop. Only larger animals will achieve this distance but it shows how incredible their feet are designed to travel long distances. 

Kangaroos can hop this far because of their strong hind legs which work like giant springs. They achieve speeds up to 64 km/h (40 mph) which also helps them to hop this far.

With a typical hop, kangaroos cover about 2 meters (6.5ft). 

How high can kangaroos jump?

Red kangaroos can jump 1.8 m (6 ft) high, it was reported that kangaroos can jump 3 m (10ft) high in very rare cases. 

Can kangaroos move backward?

Most kangaroos cannot move backward. Only the tree-kangaroo must move backward to move in trees. 

On the ground, kangaroos do not move their hind legs separately which makes it hard to move backward. If you look at the section how kangaroos move slowly (crawl-walk) you can see them forming a tripod with their forelimbs and tail and then pull the hind legs forward. It would be difficult to do the same procedure to move backward. 

Kangaroo movement is called …?

Kangaroo movement is called hopping and crawl-walking. They hop at high speeds and crawl-walk in typical situations such as grazing on open grasslands. 

The Difference Between The Movement of Kangaroos, Wallabies, and Wallaroos

A kangaroo, a wallaby, and a wallaroo are closely related to each other. They also move similar but there are some differences, though. The hind legs of kangaroos are designed to be fast on wide open flat grounds. This is what their natural habitat looks like. Wallabies, on the other hand, are more often found in bushy forests and speed is less important than maneuverability. Click here to read my article on the differences between a kangaroo, a wallaby, and a wallaroo.