How and why do kangaroos hop?

BBC Wildlife contributor Ben Phillips answers your wild question. 

Red kangaroo hopping © JohnCarnemolla / iStock 

The story begins about 30 million years ago, when the ancestor of the kangaroo – a creature a lot like a small possum – climbed down from the treetops to move around on the forest floor. Its feet and ankles, previously suited to climbing, stiffened up to handle its new terrain.

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As this ancient kangaroo’s foot was very long, the animal couldn’t walk or run properly. However, hopping was easy – as it is for modern-day ’roos. The large, stretchy tendons in a kangaroo’s hind legs act like giant springs. As these tendons strain and contract, they generate most of the energy needed for each hop. This is very different to the way humans jump, which uses a lot of muscular effort.

Jumping red kangaroo
Jumping red kangaroo. © Freder/Getty

The tail is also important, acting both as a balancing aid and a counterweight, propelling the animal into each leap. And there’s the added bonus that, while hopping, kangaroos barely need to waste effort on breathing. The jumping motion drives their gut up and down, which inflates and deflates their lungs for them.

Kangaroos usually hop at about 25kph, though they can reach 70kph over short distances, covering as much as 9m in a single hop. This energy-efficient way of travelling means they can cover vast distances in search of food and water, allowing them to thrive in the harsh climate of the Australian outback.

We’ve answered some of other fun questions about kangaroos, and some of those answers are definitely going to surprise you!

How many legs does a kangaroo have?

How long do joeys stay in the pouch?

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Do you have a wildlife question you’d like answered? Email your question to wildquestions@immediate.co.uk or post it to Q&A, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Immediate Media Company, 2nd Floor, Tower House, Fairfax Street, Bristol, BS1 3BN