What does the word marsupial mean?

   A pocket is very handy. A person may put many things into a pocket and carry them around with him. For some animals, a pocket is also necessary. Animals like the kangaroo and oppossum carry their babies in pockets on their bellies. Marsupium really means "pouch" or "bag."

   Included in this interesting group of animals are the great gray kangaroos, the small kangaroos or wallabies, the opossums, the Tasmanian wolf, and the furry koala bear. At one time, these animals were found all over the world. Now, most of them live in Australia and on nearby islands. While a few species live in South America, none are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The only species living in North America is the Virginia opossum.

   Since all marsupials are mammals, the females nourish their young on milk from their own bodies. Marsupials are different from other mammals, since their young are born small in size and underdeveloped in most ways. These young animals are really embryos which look somewhat like baby birds taken from their shells before they are ready to hatch. The small hind legs are like buds, while the front legs are usually well-developed and equipped with claws. The new born of the kangaroo is less than an inch in length.

   After birth, the young marsupials scramble through the hair on the mother's body. Without the mother's assistance, they climb up to the pouch by clawing with their limbs. In the pouch, they cling so tightly to a nipple that it is difficult to remove them. After they have been weaned and are able to obtain their own food, they often cling to the fur of the mother's back and ride about for protection. The kangaroo allows the young to hide in its pocket, in the event of danger.

   Not all female marsupials have pouches. The banded anteater, for example, carries its young on the bottom of its body. Since they cling to the nipples, without protection, the mother must elevate its hind legs to prevent the young from being dragged off.

   These animals have adapted themselves to many ways of life and often resemble other animals in their habitat. While most marsupials are land animals, one species of opossum lives in water. Some are nocturnal and feed at night, while others feed by day.

   The koala bear and opossum climb trees. While the Tasmanian wolf is carnivorous, the koala feeds on leaves from the giant gum tree. Some, like the pouched mole, are rodent-like, gnawing animals with well-developed incisors, while others, like the bandicoots, feed upon insects.