What's the difference between a wallaby and a kangaroo?

By: Jennifer Horton  | 

Mama and baby kangaroo
Kangaroos and wallabies differ in several ways.
Geoff Dann/Dave King/Getty Images

If you're like most people, when you think of kangaroos and wallabies, you think of Australia -- pouched animals with prominent hind legs, bouncing around the countryside like kids on pogo sticks. Or perhaps you flash to your favorite marsupial characters -- Rocko from "Rocko's Modern Life" or Kanga, friend to Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. Or do you think of Captain Kangaroo?

Regardless of your associations, you've probably wondered what distinguishes one animal from the other. After all, they look so much alike. They're both marsupials, meaning mothers carry their young around in built-in pouches. And scientists have even grouped them into the same order, family and subfamily.

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Captain Kangaroo
Don't let the name fool you: Captain Kangaroo is in fact a human being.
Lisa Larson/Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images

So what's the difference? Is Rocko a wallaby or a kangaroo?

The most obvious difference between the wallaby and the kangaroo is size. As a rule, the kangaroo is generally much larger than the wallaby. The kangaroo has more height between its ankles and knees, which makes its legs seem out of proportion to its body. The kangaroo's legs are built for speed on open terrain. The wallaby's more compact legs are built for agility in forested areas. Although there are many different species of both wallabies and kangaroos that span a wide range of sizes, wallabies only tend to weigh between four pounds and 53 pounds (2 kilograms to 24 kilograms) and grow a mere 12 inches to 24 inches (30 centimeters to 104 centimeters) tall, not including their tails [source: "Wallaby"]. Kangaroos, on the other hand, can grow to heights of 8 feet (2.1 meters) and weigh as much as 200 pounds (91 kilograms) [source: Microsoft Encarta].

Another simple way to tell a wallaby and a kangaroo apart is by their coloring. A wallaby's coat is usually brighter with two to three different colors. For example, the unfortunately-named "red-necked" wallaby's grayish body is distinguished by reddish markings around its shoulders. The kangaroo's coat is usually less splashy and more uniform, with muted colors like brown or gray.

For a more scientific way to tell the two animals apart, you'll have to get these guys to open their mouths and say "Aaaah." Next learn how a quick look at the kangaroo's and wallaby's teeth could help you identify them.

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Wallaby and Kangaroo Teeth

Wallaby and Kangaroo teeth
Wallaby teeth are built to grind up leaves, while kangaroo teeth are built to slice up stalks of grass.
Marcus Williams, HowStuffWorks

If the guys on "CSI" and "Law and Order" can use dental records to identify human individuals, why not extend the same logic to animals? That's exactly what scientists have done. To be absolutely sure which animal you're dealing with, you have to compare their molars. Since the two species eat their meals in different habitats, their teeth have evolved over the years to suit the specific vegetable matter they consume.

The wallaby lives in bushy forest areas where it dines on mostly leaves. Because the wallaby has to crush and grind up leaves in its mouth, it needs flat teeth. Unlike the kangaroo, it doesn't do much cutting, so its crowns are less pronounced. However, the wallaby does retain a single cutting tooth on the top of its mouth for any occasional cutting needs. It also keeps its premolars; the kangaroo sheds its premolars.

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The kangaroo, which lives in more open treeless areas, chomps on mostly grasses. Because the kangaroo has to slice up stalks of grass in its mouth, it needs teeth that can accomplish the task. The kangaroo's teeth are curved with cross-cutting ridges for cutting and shearing grass. Its molars have higher crowns than wallaby teeth.

Are you still wondering whether Rocko is a kangaroo or a wallaby? Next time you're watching "Rocko's Modern Life," peer inside his mouth and check out his molars. If his creators know their stuff, you should see flat teeth and a sharp cutting tooth; Rocko is a wallaby. You'll also notice he's noticeably smaller than his buddies on the show, another telltale sign that he's a member of the wallaby species.

To learn more about kangaroos and wallabies and some other intriguing animals, investigate the links that follow.

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Originally Published: Mar 11, 2008

Wallaby vs Kangaroo FAQ

Are kangaroos and wallabies the same?
No, while they may look similar and belong to the same taxonomic family, kangaroos and wallabies are different in regards to size, weight and speed they can move at.
Are kangaroos dangerous to humans?
While most kangaroos are relatively shy, they can be quite aggressive towards humans if they’re provoked. To avoid an attack, keep a safe distance from them, make sure your dog is leashed around them and never turn your back on them.
Are wallabies aggressive?
Similar to kangaroos, wallabies generally accept a human’s presence as long as they do not feel threatened.
Are wallabies part of the kangaroo family?
Yes, wallabies belong to the same taxonomic family as kangaroos. However, kangaroos are categorized into four species (red, eastern grey, western grey and antilopine) white there are many more types of wallabies. This includes 19 species of rock-wallabies, nine species of brush wallabies, two species of hare-wallabies, three species of nail-tail wallabies, seven species of scrub wallabies, seven species of forest wallabies, one species of short-tailed scrub wallaby and one swamp wallaby
Can wallabies jump?
Compared to kangaroos, wallabies are smaller in size, only reaching a height up to 6 feet. That said, they have powerful hind legs that allow them to jump quite high and cover great distances quickly.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Australia Zoo. "Mammals: Kangaroos vs. Wallabies." Feb. 3, 2006. (Feb. 12, 2008)http://www.australiazoo.com.au/our-animals/animal-diaries/index.php?diary=872
  • Fountain, Lesley. "America Zoo: Brush-tailed Wallaby." 2005-2006. (Feb. 13, 2008)http://www.americazoo.com/goto/index/mammals/25.htm
  • Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007. "Marsupial." (Feb. 12, 2008) http://encarta.msn.com
  • Myers, P. "Macropodidae." Animal Diversity Web. 2001. (Feb. 13, 2008) http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Macropodidae.html
  • National Geographic Kids. "Eastern Gray Kangaroo." 1996-2008. (Feb. 12, 2008)http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/gray-kangaroo.html
  • National Geographic Kids. "Wallaby." 2008. (Feb. 12, 2008)http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/wallaby.html
  • Thomas, Oldfield. "Catalogue of the Marsupialia and Monotremata in the collection of the British Museum (Natural History)." London: Order of the Trustees, 1888.
  • Tyndale-Biscoe, Hugh. "Life of Marsupials." Australia: Csiro Publishing, 2005.
  • Wilson, Don E. and DeeAnn M. Reeder, eds. Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd Ed). Johns Hopkins University Press. (Feb. 13, 2008)http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3/

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