North America, Central America, South America, Australia, and New Guinea


Desert, savanna, chaparral, forest, rain forest, and urban areas

Life in a backpack

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could be carried around in a backpack your entire childhood? You’d never have to worry about falling off of Mom’s back or getting caught by predators! Well, marsupials are the kinds of animals that can do this. They are known as pouched mammals, because the adult females have a marsupium, or pouch, usually on the outside of the body where the young (called joeys) are raised. The pouch acts as a warm, safe place where the joeys grow.

Most adult female mammals give live birth outside of the body; during development inside of the mother, the baby is connected directly to the mother’s blood supply by a placenta. These are called placental mammals. Marsupials give live birth, too, but the embryo climbs from the birth canal to the pouch. Once there, the embryo attaches to a nipple and doesn’t let go because it can’t! The nipple instantly swells in the embryo’s mouth so that it is only able to let go when it is more developed.

So different yet so similar!

Most people think of Australia when they think of marsupials, because the most well known of the marsupials—koalas and kangaroos—live there. But opossum species, which are also marsupials, are found in North, Central, and South America. Most marsupials have four small legs and feet, such as opossums and quolls, while kangaroos and wallabies have two large feet and two “arms.”

As mentioned, all marsupial females have a pouch, but the pouch of the Virginia opossum of North America and the wombat of Australia points backward toward the tail instead of forward toward the head. All marsupials are covered in hair and feed their young milk. They generally have good hearing and smell.

Most marsupials walk on the ground or are good climbers, and one, the water opossum, or yapok, of South America, can swim! The numbat is the only marsupial that is active during the day—all others are nocturnal or crepuscular. Bandicoots, kangaroos, wallabies, and possums have two toes fused together, while all the others have separate toes.

Tall browsing kangaroos “Procoptodon”and “Diprotodon” from 12,000 years ago were the largest marsupials to live. They were about the size of today’s rhinoceros.
People once thought that opossum young were blown straight from the nose into the pouch! This was in 1500 when the first marsupial, an opossum, was brought to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain by New World explorers.
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was a striped, wolf-like marsupial now probably extinct. It was hunted by ranchers and farmers because it often attacked sheep and chickens.
The Virginia opossum has 52 teeth, the most teeth for any North American mammal!

The San Diego Zoo has a variety of marsupials for our guests to view, including koalas, wallabies, and tree kangaroos, which can all be seen in the Zoo’s new Australian Outback. Watch our koalas live anytime via our online Koala Cam!

Marsupials often struggle to survive, and kangaroos are currently hunted for food and hides. The greater bilby Macrotis lagotis has decreased greatly over the years due to habitat loss from farming and introduced predators like feral cats and foxes. There are breeding programs for this species now, and they are being reintroduced into western Queensland, Australia, to repopulate their lost numbers.

The mountain pygmy-opossum Burramys parvus numbers less than 2,000 in the wild, due to construction of roads, dams, and ski resorts in its mountainous habitat. The hairy-nosed wombat Lasiorhinus graffiti has about 70 individuals left in one of the national parks in Queensland. This wombat is at critical risk due to overhunting for its thick fur.

There are many more marsupials that are endangered or at critical risk, and several that have already gone extinct. Australia now uses various management practices to protect its marsupials. We also need to do our part to keep them around. Reducing your ecological footprint, recycling, and being aware of the products you are buying and where they come from are all things you can do to help our pouched friends!

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.