What's Inside a Kangaroo's Pouch?

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If you had to name the number-one distinguishing characteristic about kangaroos, it would probably be those big, bouncy feet. But second place? It's definitely the pouch. Female kangaroos, like all marsupial females, are equipped with a special pouch they use to carry around their newborn babies. Most of us know that part, but it's less clear what that pouch is actually like on the inside. Like the inside of your pants pocket? Like a fluffy tote bag? It turns out that a kangaroo's pouch actually feels lot more ... biological than that.

Happy Trails

A kangaroo pouch probably isn't what you're imagining if your only experience with kangaroos comes from cartoons or movies. Back in 2015, Science Alert sent Destin Sandlin, the creator of the "Smarter Every Day" YouTube channel, to their home base of Australia for a pouch peek. Destin got up close to some kangaroos and touched a pouch or two with his fingers — though he had more success with some 'roos than others (Hey, even marsupials have boundaries!). You can see what he found in the video above. But what exactly goes on in there?

Kangaroos and other marsupials give birth very differently than other mammals. After a super-short pregnancy — we're talking less than a month — the mother kangaroo gives birth to a tiny pink baby that's barely larger than a grain of rice and weighs less than a gram, or about as much as a Jelly Belly. But even before it enters the world, the little joey starts climbing: Scientists have observed tiny climbing movements from kangaroo fetuses in utero up to three days before birth. That climbing is important because it's the only way the joey can make it into its mother's pouch. Immediately after she gives birth, the mother licks a little trail on her fur for her baby to follow in its grand climb until it finally reaches the pouch. (You can watch the whole process in this amazing footage from BBC Earth.)

The pouch is where the joey stays for many months while it grows and develops its own coat of fur. The first time it pops out to see the world is around four months. Until then, it spends its days nursing on the four nipples female kangaroos have inside their pouches. It's basically like a second womb in there. Those teats produce milk of different types to feed joeys of different ages, a cool adaptation that allows mom kangaroos to feed their babies appropriately at multiple stages of development.

The pouch itself is tricky to find, and that's probably by design. In cartoons, a kangaroo usually has a clear line across the midsection for the pouch, but that line doesn't exist in real life. If you wanted to find the opening, you'd have to feel for it. It is horizontal, but narrower than you'd probably expect. It's small and hidden to reduce the risk of losing babies. The inside of the pocket is stretchy and slightly sticky, with no hair or fur.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Any germaphobes out there? If you like to stay even moderately clean, you're probably wondering what happens when a kangaroo pocket gets a little too sticky. Like human kids, joeys are often pretty dirty, so every so often, kangaroo mothers have to clean their babies' nursery to make sure it doesn't get too smelly and unhygienic.

But a mother kangaroo can't just dump out her pocket to clean it. Instead, she uses her tongue. It might sound gross to you, but it's true — kangaroos clean their pouches by licking the inside and scooping out dirt, poop, and urine.

Kangaroo Cleaning Her Pouch

For joeys, the kangaroo pouch isn't such a bad place to live since it keeps them safe, cozy, clean, and close to mom. Many stay in the pouch long after they're physically able to leave the pouch, so mother kangaroos often have two babies to carry around with them — one teeny-tiny infant, and one fully developed kid. That's right: Young kangaroos need to share a room with their siblings. Just be happy your childhood room was easier to clean.

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Written by Kelsey Donk October 28, 2019
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