Photo: Lumholtz's tree-kangaroos at WLT sanctuary Atherton Tablelands Birdwatchers' Cabin

This article featured in Wildlife Lands Issue 20

Found high in the tropical rainforest canopies of north-eastern Queensland, the elusive tree kangaroos are Australia’s only tree-dwelling macropods. Descended from an ancestor similar to a pademelon, their strong hind legs and curved claws are adapted to gripping trees, whilst long tails provide balance as they leap between branches. Several species are found in the Asia Pacific region, but only two species are endemic to Australia, the Lumholtz’s (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) and Bennett’s (Dendrolagus bennettianus) tree kangaroos.

The smallest species in the genus, The Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo, weighs around 7kg with an average body length of 50-65cm. They are recognisable by their grizzled reddish-grey fur and bushy tails which, at around 70cm, are often even longer than their bodies. Classified as near-threatened, this species is found in both protected and unprotected regions in the fragmented forests of the Atherton Tablelands.

A male Lumholtz's tree kangaroo at WLT sanctuary Atherton Tablelands Birdwatchers' Cabin

The Bennett’s tree kangaroo is larger and more robust, with males weighing up to 14kg and females around 10kg. Living north of the Daintree River, it is found in a relatively small area of the Wet Tropics and is considered quite rare. Luckily for this species, nearly their entire habitat is protected within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Bennett’s tree kangaroos are grey-brown with a black underside, which helps camouflage them from predators below. Despite their large size, they are notoriously secretive and as a result little is known about their population, biology or habits. 

Most tree kangaroos live isolated in home ranges, which they fiercely defend from outsiders. They move along the ground with an awkward hop, but their agility in the trees is remarkable, and they can leap up to 9 metres between branches. Unlike most macropods, their diet is quite general and ranges from leaves and fruit to grains, bark and sap. During the day, they sleep hunched on branches high in the canopies, away from predators like dingoes and carpet pythons.

Tree kangaroos play an important role as flagship species – as large and iconic animals they act as ambassadors for the ecosystems they are part of.  But despite the World Heritage protections for their habitat, both species face increasingly severe threats to their survival and a low reproduction rate makes it difficult for the population to recover from declines. A current lack of research on these species makes it difficult to predict the futures of the populations or the impacts of development activities on their survival.

A mother and joey Lumholtz's tree kangaroo at WLT Sanctuary Barrine Park Nature Refuge

Tree kangaroos also dislike leaving their home range – they are known to stay in fragmented or disturbed areas rather than move to more intact forests. The destruction of tree kangaroo habitat has forced populations to live in fragmented areas of rainforest, where they must often travel on the ground to move between trees. This makes them easy targets for dog attacks and vehicle collisions. Climate change is also expected to further degrade their forests, as cyclones become more frequent and severe, temperatures rise and water sources diminish.

Wildlife Land Trust sanctuaries such as Nightwings Rainforest Centre, Lake View and Atherton Tablelands Birdwatchers’ Cabin help to conserve important tree kangaroo habitat, connecting fragmented rainforests and providing sanctuary from predators and human development.

A mother and joey Lumholtz's tree kangaroo at WLT sanctuary Atherton Tablelands Birdwatchers' Cabin

Our recent nomination of Lowland tropical Rainforest of the Wet Tropics Bioregion is currently undergoing assessment for a Threatened Ecological Community (TEC) listing under the EPBC Act. This community is one of the last intact remnants of a unique rainforest ecosystem and provides crucial habitat for tree kangaroos and other unique wildlife.