What do Kangaroos Eat? (Facts and Favourite Food!)
When I was traveling in Australia I saw countless kangaroos eating. Some people even tried to feed kangaroos. So I asked myself, what do kangaroos eat?
Kangaroos are mainly herbivores and vegetarians. The animals eat plants native to Australia, especially grasses but also flowering plants, as well as mushrooms, ferns and leaves. In general, kangaroos prefer to eat fresh grass.
Preferences for certain plant species depend on the kangaroo species. Small kangaroo species are especially picky about food.
Kangaroos eat mainly grass and digestion is similar to cows. However, kangaroos are not ruminants. In principle, the habitats of kangaroos when grazing are similar to those of cows and sheep.
The food depends on the kangaroo species
The preferred food of kangaroos depends on the species. The main distinction is between very small kangaroos weighing less than 5 kg, medium-sized, as well as large kangaroos weighing more than 30 kg.
What do kangaroos like to eat most?
Researchers in New South Wales (Australia) observed which plants kangaroos prefer to eat:
- Fresh grass
- Green perennials
- Normal grass
Less popular were:
- Salt-tolerant shrubs
- Dry grass
- Acacia as well as branches with leaves, buds, flowers, or new shoots
- Maireana (perennial herbaceous plants)
The researchers discovered that kangaroos prefer to eat fresh green grass, dry grass is eaten only when no better food is available.
What do big kangaroos eat?
The larger kangaroos, such as the red kangaroo, feed mainly on Australian grasses. These grasses have a large amount of fiber. Larger kangaroos are not as picky as small wallabies.
Kangaroos spend most of the late evening as well as the night on large open grasslands. There they eat grass. Thereby the animals prefer fresh juicy grasses:
- Fresh grasses are easier to digest than older dry grasses.
- Fresh grasses contain more nutrients than old dry grasses
75% - 99% of the diet of large kangaroos consists of grass. Tall grasses are generally avoided. Kangaroos can live well on dry grasses in extreme situations. Shrubs are eaten mainly in winter or when there is little rainfall.
Large kangaroo species are undemanding
Large kangaroo species have a slower metabolism rate than their smaller relatives, the wallabies. Larger kangaroos can therefore survive on fewer nutrients relative to their body weight. Therefore, kangaroos can feed on simple grasses that provide little nutritional value.
Male adult kangaroos are less finicky than female kangaroos. It often happens that males eat less nutritious dry grasses, while females eat better or higher quality grasses.
Extreme drought, as well as overgrazing, causes both male and female kangaroos to eat less nutrient-rich and older plants.
What do smaller kangaroos like wallabies and quokka eat?
Smaller kangaroo species (wallabies) must be careful to eat nutrient-rich foods because of their rapid rate of metabolism. Wallabies like to eat nutrient-rich fruits, seeds, fresh shoots, mushrooms, tubers, bulbs, roots, truffles, as well as flowers. Otherwise, they eat mostly leaves. These consist of less fiber than grass. Occasionally, small kangaroo species also eat small invertebrates.
The digestive organs and teeth of wallabies are less adapted to eating highly fibrous plants such as grass. Nevertheless, wallabies and smaller kangaroo species such as quokkas and pademelons occasionally eat fibrous grasses.
The food supply is ultimately determined by availability. The availability is largely determined by the weather of the last few weeks.
However, most animals can not simply eat all plants. For example, they avoid the poisonous eucalyptus leaves.
Do kangaroos eat meat?
Kangaroos are basically herbivores, but they do eat meat in exceptional cases. That is, kangaroos are omnivores and they have been observed eating dead birds and dead fish.
Here's the proof. A western grey kangaroo was filmed eating a dead bird on the beach in Cape Le Grand National Park:
Kangaroos do not have the skills to effectively catch other animals. Additionally, the digestion of kangaroos is not adapted to meat.
Most herbivores however can eat meat occasionally, even if it is not common. In principle, herbivores also take the opportunity for quick intake of vital proteins. Especially when the animal to be eaten is already dead on the ground.
Small kangaroo species in particular feed intermittently on insects and small lizards. However, small kangaroo species (e.g. tree kangaroos or quokkas) eat mainly leaves and fruits.
Due to the difference in food preferences, the teeth of kangaroo species vary. Smaller kangaroo species must also be able to crush smaller invertebrates, while large kangaroos must be able to pull out grass.
How do kangaroos eat?
The animals' teeth are adapted to the species-specific typical meals. The three largest kangaroo species (red kangaroo, eastern grey kangaroo, western grey kangaroo) eat mainly locally native grasses.
Large kangaroo species have front teeth which are specialized in chopping and tearing out grasses.
These large kangaroos do not cut the grass directly with their teeth. They make a small but rapid movement with their head to tear out the grass. Then they use their molars to grind the grass into small pieces. The highly crushed food allows for faster digestion.
Very small kangaroo species have teeth to "crack" insects as well as small reptiles.
Where do kangaroos find food?
Small kangaroos find food in the undergrowth of forests. Large kangaroos are nocturnal and eat grass in the evening or at night on large open grassland.
Different species of kangaroos go to different places to forage.
Small kangaroo species are in search of nutrient-rich food. They tend to find that food in the undergrowth of forests. There they find tubers, roots, small fruits, truffles, as well as small insects.
Medium-sized kangaroos are found in both undergrowth and open areas.
Large kangaroos find food primarily in flat grasslands.
Kangaroos do not travel far to find better food. It is assumed that the effort to get to better places does not justify the expected added value of nutrients in the food.
When do kangaroos eat?
Kangaroos are nocturnal animals. They feed from late afternoon until sunrise. Kangaroos spend between 6 to 8 hours a day just eating.
I could observe that some animals were also looking for food during the day. However, the number of animals in search of food is far greater in the late evening after sunset. I could regularly observe huge areas of grassland full of grass-eating kangaroos:
In summer, kangaroos spend less time foraging. This is due to short nights as well as longer resting periods in the shade when high temperatures occur.
Digestion in kangaroos
Larger kangaroos, like cows and sheep, eat mainly grasses which are difficult to digest. Unlike cows and sheep, kangaroos are not ruminants. This means that kangaroos have to chew those plants extremely well before they enter the stomach.
The stomach of kangaroos is comparatively large in order to digest a large amount of food with low nutrient content. Kangaroos ferment their food. In this process, polysaccharides are converted into nutrients.
Western grey kangaroos can extract more nutrients from food than their relatives the eastern grey kangaroos. These in turn have a better digestion than red kangaroos.
In periods of drought, kangaroos can keep the feed in their stomachs longer and ferment it better. Thus the excrements are much drier and kangaroos can extract more nutrients and ingest more water.
Only the smallest kangaroos, such as the musky rat kangaroo, have a normal stomach that is not specialized for fermenting grasses. They therefore eat mainly fruits and small insects.
Is it allowed to feed kangaroos?
During my travels in Australia I could observe numerous people feeding kangaroos. But is it really allowed to feed kangaroos?
In most areas it is allowed to feed kangaroos. However, kangaroos in the wild should not be fed. The animals are not used to the food they get from humans and have difficulty digesting it. This can harm the animals. In certain regions, such as Rottnest Island, it is forbidden to feed quokkas (a small species of kangaroo).
In particular, bread and other baked foods should not be fed to kangaroos under any circumstances. Additionally, carrots make kangaroos addicted to the suger. This article describes why you should never feed kangaroos. It’s for your own safety, too.
Humans can transmit diseases through the food which are dangerous for kangaroos. Therefore it is advisable not to feed or touch kangaroos.
What do baby kangaroos eat?
As with other mammals, there is a big difference in the diet of kangaroos between newborns and adults. What do baby kangaroos eat?
A baby kangaroo feeds on milk which is adapted to the age of the animal. It is firmly attached to one of the four teats in the mother's pouch during the first months of life.
Kangaroos are not born in a pouch, but must climb blindly into their mother's pouch to a teat to receive milk after birth.
After about 8 months, baby kangaroos (also called joeys) look out of their mother's pouch for the first time. Then the little animals begin to occasionally nibble on the grass while the mother also eats grass. Nevertheless, even during this time the animals feed mainly on milk.
As soon as the kangaroo leaves the pouch a new baby is born that occupies the pouch. However, the older sibling still sticks its snout into the pouch and occasionally feeds on the milk provided by one of the teats.
Only after weaning do kangaroos feed exclusively on the same diet as adult kangaroos.
However, newly weaned kangaroos rarely have noticeable reserves. Therefore, they easily become victims of severe droughts.
How much food do kangaroos need?
Kangaroos require only about 50 - 70% of the energy of comparably sized mammals. Medium-sized kangaroos need about 500 - 600 g of food per day (1.1 - 1.32 lb).
Because of the low nutrient value of their food, kangaroos must spend much of their active time foraging. Most kangaroo species spend the late evening, night, and early morning foraging.
Kangaroos have to eat a large volume of food and therefore need a large stomach. Digestion by fermentation takes longer than ordinary digestion, which is another reason why kangaroos have a large stomach.
Kangaroos eat less grass in summer
The time and amount of foraging also depends on the season and external environmental conditions. On hot summer days, kangaroos eat only half as much as on cool winter days. In summer, kangaroos try to reduce the amount of energy needed to forage. This is also to reduce body temperature. In winter, kangaroos need more energy to maintain the required body temperature.
How do kangaroos find water during drought?
Kangaroos are well adapted to the typical conditions in their habitat. Generally, when water is scarce, kangaroos drink less and can survive with less water for a period of time. But how do kangaroos find water?
Kangaroos know their territory very well and therefore know all the water sources. In extreme drought, kangaroos can live for quite some time only on the water that is contained in the grass they eat.
Kangaroos can absorb a certain amount of water through their food. If the amount of water in the diet is too low, they have to drink water at water holes.
Humans have made it easier for animals to survive in certain areas.
Water holes for cattle and sheep are often used by kangaroos to drink water. This can lead to kangaroos entering regions where they were not native in the past.
Waterholes have helped eastern grey kangaroos to expand in areas east of the Blue Mountains where only red kangaroos were once native.
I have already written a separate article about the fascinating water management in kangaroos. Details about water and kangaroos can be read in detail here.
Kangaroos can also visit water sources several kilometers away. Hopping is an energy-saving form of traveling longer distances for kangaroos. And because they don’t need a regular water intake, the long journey pays off in dry periods.