Get to know Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo

Our tea plantation at Glen Allyn on the Atherton Tablelands has long been home to a family of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos – or mupee, boongary or marbi, as they are known variously to the area’s Djirrbal and Ngadjon-jii peoples. Here, we explore the history of these unique and fascinating creatures, and their significance in local Aboriginal culture.

An ancient bond

For many of Australia’s First peoples, the kangaroo is a totem animal, or their spiritual animal. A totem is a natural object that represents Aboriginal peoples’ connection to the land and creation, and they have great cultural importance.  

There is no doubt that the mupee was of huge significance to the Djirrbal and Ngadjon-jii peoples, members of the Djirrbalngan language group living on the Atherton Tableland. While they were an important food source, they were hunted respectfully. The Aboriginal peoples believed kangaroos were very wise, and in fact, research has since revealed that Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos have large brains and can adapt their behaviour quickly. Their first cousins are rock wallabies, with Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos emerging as a separate species seven million years ago. Given that the Australian continent is 3.8 billion years old, they are considered a ‘young’ or ‘modern’ species!

European discoveries

No white person had seen a tree-kangaroo until 113 years after Captain Cook landed in Australia. They had remained undiscovered for so long because of their remote, tree-canopy habitat in the rainforest and, being solitary animals, were hard to spot. In fact, some considered them mythical creatures, due to their elusiveness.

It was Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian ethnographer and explorer, who, in 1883, was given a specimen of a tree-kangaroo caught by an Aboriginal man named Nilgora with his hunting dingo, Balnglan. Lumholtz took it back to the University of Oslo, where it was named Dendrolagus lumholtzi in his honour. By 1890, a larger species, named Bennett’s tree-kangaroo, had been identified in Queensland’s far north.

Image source: Wikipedia –  Lithograph of Dendrolagus lumholtzi by Joseph Smit, from Proceedings of the general meetings for scientific business of the Zoological Society of London, 1884

Living the high life

Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos are close relatives of kangaroos and wallabies, but are different in many ways, most obviously in their choice of habitat. One theory to explain this is that, given Australia did not have any native leaf-eating monkeys, with nothing to compete with, the Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos had evolved to fill that void by claiming the trees as their food source.

Unlike other kangaroos, Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos are perfectly adapted to living in trees. Their hind legs move independently, and their ankles and wrists rotate, which helps them to grip branches for climbing. Their tails are long and cylindrical, but, unlike monkeys, who use theirs to grip branches, tree-kangaroos use theirs as a counterbalance when climbing or hopping (and yes, when on the ground, Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos bound just like other kangaroos).

Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos at Nerada

We are very lucky to have a family of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos living in the treetops adjacent to our tea plantation in Malanda. It is very rare for these animals to live in a group; usually, they are territorial and can be quite aggressive when protecting their borders. They generally only come together to mate, the infants then staying with their mothers for two years before they move on. Of course, you don’t always find them in the trees at Nerada; like any wild animal, they move around as they please and occasionally return to the rainforest.

The future for Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos

Sadly, Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo is now classified as near-threatened. To raise funds in order to protect them, there is an enclosure of rescued animals at the Corroboree exhibit at DreamWorld on the Gold Coast along with great work being done by Tree Roo Rescue and Conservation Group, among others. To help restore the population to what it once was and ensure the future survival of the species, it is essential that their rainforest habitat is protected and the threat from traffic and wild and domestic dogs minimised. Further research will also need to be conducted into a disease that causes them to go blind.

But all is not lost, at Nerada we know how lucky we are to share our land with these unique native animals.