Marsupials Biology and Management

Learn about marsupial animals, the biology of the animals as well as management in the wild and captive animals with this marsupials course.

Course Code: BEN303
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Become an Expert on Marsupials

  • Discover the diversity, biology, behaviour, and wellbeing of marsupial animals
  • Explore how that knowledge can be applied to better managing individual animals or populations of animals, in the wild or in captivity.
  • A course for people working with animals, those in a wildlife management position or anyone who is hoping to work with animals.

The first historic record of a marsupial occurred in 1,500 AD when to Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were presented a Brazilian opossum collected during Columbus´s first voyage. A Portuguese administrator in 1540 first described an Australasian marsupial, a northern common cuscus, Phalanger orientalis.

There are now around 330 described species of marsupials with approximately 235 from Australasia, continental Australia and its coastal islands and New Guinea, and approximately 95 from the New World of South, Central and North America. These numbers vary with changes in systematics, and the discovery of new species through phylogenetic analysis and field surveys. In Australasia, marsupials are the dominant terrestrial and arboreal mammals, with placental mammals represented by bats, rodents, exotic species, and shoreline seals and sea lions in southern Australia.

Lesson Structure

There are 10 lessons in this course:

  1. Marsupial Evolution, Taxonomy and External Morphology
    • Introduction and History
    • Evolution
    • Taxonomy
    • Marsupial Orders - American and Australian
    • Families within orders
    • Comparing diversity
  2. Internal Anatomy, Physiology and Senses
    • Introduction
    • Neural Systems and Intelligence
    • Vision
    • Dentition
    • Digestion
    • Skeleton - head, postcranial, scent glands and olfaction
    • Reproduction - males, embryonic development, lactation and litter size
    • Basal metabolism - longevity, lifespan
  3. Behaviour
    • Introduction
    • Social behaviours
    • Territoriality and home range
    • Thermoregulation, torpor and hibernation
    • Mating systems
    • Caring for young
    • Vocalisation and threat behaviour
    • Feeding and diet
    • Den sites and nests
    • Habitat
    • Predation and predators
  4. Marsupial Health
    • Pathogens and Parasites
    • Viruses - hepatovirus, herpes, other significant viruses
    • Cancer - facial tumor disease, other cancers
    • Parasites and other pathogens -chlamydia, sarcoptic mange, coccidiosis, leptospirosis, tuberculosis
    • Nematodes
    • White muscle disease
    • Lumpy jaw
    • Marsupials as disease vectors
    • Malnutrition and starvation
    • Pollution
    • Shock, injury, bit wounds, burns, electrocution, ocular injury, skeletal trauma
    • Marsupial health care - stress, diet, housing
  5. Marsupial Carnivores
    • Dsyuridae - Quolls, Devils and relatives
    • Dasyuridae characteristics
    • Tasmanian devil
    • Quolls - review 6 species
    • Dunnarts
    • Antechinuses - review 10 species
    • Numbats, Myrmecobiidae
    • Thylacine
  6. Macropods
    • Introduction
    • Taxonomy
    • Kangaroos, Wallabies, Wallaroos- Macropus
    • Tree Kangaroos - Dendrolagus
    • Rock Wallabies - Petrogale
    • Quokka - Setonix
  7. Diprotodontia Marsupials
    • Introduction to wombats, koalas, possums and relatives
    • Koala -characteristics, diet, reproduction
    • Wombats characteristics taxonomy, review on 2 living species
    • Ringtail Possums
    • Brush tailed Possums
    • Gliders and striped Possums
    • Pygmy Possums
    • Feather tailed possums
    • Potoroos and relatives
    • Honey Possum
  8. Peramelemophs
    • Peramelidae - bandicoots and echymiperas
    • Peramelinae – Australian Bandicoots.
    • Peroryctinae – Giant & Raffrays Bandicoots.
    • Echymiperinae – Echimiperas and Papuan Bandicoots
    • Chaeropodidae - the pig-footed bandicoot (presumed extinct)
    • Thylacomyidae - bilbies
  9. Other Marsupials
    • Notoryctemorphia - Marsupial moles
    • Didelpimorphia - American Opossums
    • Microbiotheria - Monito del monte
    • Paucituberculata - Shrew and Rat Opossums
  10. Sustainable Management of Marsupials
    • Introduction
    • Sustainable management
    • Threats and Amelioration
    • Political influence
    • Climate change
    • Habitat protection and modification
    • Control of exotic species
    • Disease Management
    • Monitoring
    • Fire management
    • Artificial habitats - conservation breeding, geographical isolation, genetic impoverishment

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Explain the likely origin of marsupials.
  • Explain classification of marsupials.
  • Identify common external anatomical features in marsupials
  • Explain common and diverging characteristics in the internal biology of marsupials.
  • Discuss and compare behavioural characteristics in a number of different marsupials.
  • Describe health issues that affect marsupials.
  • Identify and describe the biology, behaviour and care of marsupial carnivores.
  • Identify and describe the biology, behaviour, and care of Macropods from the Diprotodontia order.
  • Identify and describe the biology, behaviour and care of non-macropod marsupials in Diprotodontia.
  • Identify and describe the biology, behaviour and care of marsupials in order Peramelemorphia.
  • Identify and describe the biology, behaviour and care of other marsupials, specifically from the taxonomic orders Didelphimorphia, Microbiotheria, Notoryctemorphia and Paucituberculata.
  • Discuss issues related to the sustainable management of marsupials.


Marsupial anatomy differs to other mammals in terms of the brain, vision, skeletal features, and their reproductive systems.  The main defining characteristic of marsupials is reproductive as in the birth of embryonic young, and not the presences of a pouch as pouches are not present in many, particularly New World marsupials.

A significant characteristics of the marsupial brain is its lack of connectivity the two hemispheres that is developed in placental mammals. Marsupial brains are also smaller than those of ecologically equivalent mammals, for example as quoll´s brain is around half the size of a domestic cat even though quoll´s are also predators and slightly large than domestic cats. From a metabolic viewpoint the brain size of marsupials in comparison to placental mammal’s results from marsupials extended lactation, whereas the greater brain size and capacity of placental mammals is primarily a result of intimate physiological contact between mothers and offspring during prolonged gestation. 



The sustainable management of the Earth´s biodiversity requires addressing the environment in general including the atmosphere, and aquatic and terrestrial environments. An informed public is needed to focus political engagement and influence for the maintenance of all these environments.  The best management practices are needed to be implemented under government guidelines. Although Australia in principle supports sustainable management, the focusing of government resources and commitment has often been lacking. Recent droughts and fires caused by global heating have brought more focus in Australia to environmental issues. Hopefully, these concerns can be harnessed to prevent a second third wave of marsupial extinctions. 

The sustainable management of Australasian marsupials can be partitioned into two and broadly overlapping strategies; 1) the establishment and maintenance of traditional protected areas such as national parks in which threats are reduced but not usually entirely eliminated, and 2) protecting marsupials in conservation breeding programs and in fenced in areas where threats are entirely eliminated. Protection in artificial habitats is mostly needed for the very small marsupials under 35 g and over 5.5 kg that live in non-forested areas. Marsupials in these size ranges usually cannot survive without the total eradication of cats and foxes, and need predator exclusion fences or translocation to islands free of cats, foxes, and in some cases exotic rats. 

At the time of the British invasion the largest predator was the Tasmanian tiger, hunted to extinction by the 1930´s, along with the Macropod the Toolache wallaby (Macropus greyi).  Until the 1980s the traditional conservation measure of habitat protection was considered the best solution to assure the survival of the remaining marsupial species. This policy was a result of marsupial declines being largely attributed to habitat loss and to the environmental effects of introduced rabbits and foxes, which even in agricultural areas existed in numbers that were difficult to control. However, with the recognition of the ongoing decline of Australian marsupials, and more public interest in environmental issue since the early 1970s more proactive measures were undertaken. 

Some species were provided with conservation breeding programs by zoos, conservation research and monitoring was increased, and specific reserves were established for individual species. Broad scale and highly targeted eradication programs of cats and foxes included snares and traps, poison baits, shooting. Special reserves were been made for individual species. However, marsupial populations continue to decline to extinction, and for some species even large and expensive management programs have ended with little effect or even failure. 

The intentional introduction of rabbits, cats, and foxes, along with the suppression of dingo´s their predator, resulted in the overall extinction of at least 28 Australian terrestrial native mammals, including both marsupials and placentals that mainly occupied open forest or grasslands. Rabbits contributed to their extinction by competing for food, burrows, and providing food for cats and foxes as the native mammals became extinct. Some such as stick nest rats (placental) and bandicoots (marsupials) occupied nests made of sticks or grass and were soon exterminated. Disease appears to have resulted in a dramatic loss of populations or species of various large Dasyurids, some of which survived on the isolated island of Tasmania. Species generally survived in their habitat included southern cool temperate and temperate forests or tropical rainforests or savannahs.  

Some marsupials of particular phylogenetic significance were exterminated including the Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus, which was the only known member of the family Thylacinidae to survive up to the British colonisation of Australia. The Thylacine was ruthlessly hunted with bounties paid for kills until there have been no confirmed sightings of the thylacine since the 1930s. The last Thylacines were destined to die alone in captivity. Another example of phylogenetic significance is the southern pig-footed bandicoot, Chaeropus ecaudatus, the only known member of the family Chaeropididae. As there have been no confirmed sightings of C. ecaudatus since the 1950s, and as its previous habitats are highly modified and well surveyed C. ecaudatus is considered extinct.


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