Wednesday, 10 June 2015

What a Marsupial Is and Is Not

For those who live outside of Australasia, regular encounters with marsupials are probably fairly rare. It may be this lack of frequency that results in confusion for many people regarding what exactly qualifies an animal as a marsupial. While many of these types of animals do reside in moderate climates where trees and other foliage exist for climbing and eating, these are not actually the calling cards which distinguish them from other classes.

Two of the best known members of the marsupial family are often photographed perched in or hanging from trees. The koala and opossum are certainly two very different-looking creatures, and yet they hail from the same infraclass. One key difference to note is that koalas, like most marsupials, are native only to Australia and nearby Oceania islands. By contrast, opossums represent the only marsupial that is native to North America, dispelling the common myth that all animals of this type hail from just a single continent.

Trees are not the only dwelling places for these types of animals, either. While koalas and opossums have no problem scaling limber branches, larger species must rely on other means of shelter and self-defense against predators. A well-known example is the kangaroo, a land-based animal known for the distinctive pouch used to carry and protect the animal’s young. This is actually one of the few true distinguishing features of all marsupials, who give birth to young early and continue to raise and develop them within the safe confines of their built-in pouches. Kangaroos just happen to get most of the recognition.

While the image of the rugged Australian outback may come to mind when picturing a typical habitat, many marsupials exist in a range of varied climates. As an example, the mountain pygmy possum makes residence in the snowy Australian Alps, while animals such as wombats actually burrow underground to establish their dwelling spaces. Indeed, the image of kangaroos and koalas populating barren stretches of dry land is just a small picture of marsupials as a whole.

One last common mistake is to make the assumption that a marsupial is naturally an herbivore. In fact, depending on the animal’s specific type of teeth, marsupials may indulge in many different forms of sustenance. For example, opossums and bandicoots are actually known to be omnivorous, while wombats, kangaroos, and koalas are more apt to stick to leafy greens. Many other species subsist on insects and small prey, highlighting the truly diverse nature of marsupials as a whole.

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