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marsupial (märso͞oˈpēəl), member of the order Marsupialia, or pouched mammals. With the exception of the New World opossums and an obscure S American family (Caenolestidae), marsupials are now found only in Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, and a few adjacent islands. They are generally distinguished from placental mammals by the absence of a placenta connecting the embryo with its mother, although in a few forms the female has a rudimentary placenta that functions for a short time.

The embryo is nourished during its brief gestation by a fluid secreted by the mother's uterus. The young are born in a very undeveloped state; at birth the great gray kangaroo is about 1 in. (2.5 cm) long and the opossum about 11-2 in. (3.8 cm) long. Immediately after birth the young crawl to the mother's nipples and remain attached to them while continuing their development. As they are still too helpless to suckle, milk is squirted into them by the periodic contraction of muscles over the mother's mammary glands.

In nearly all marsupials the female's nipples are covered by a pouch, or marsupium, formed by a fold of abdominal skin. Even after the suckling stage the young return at times to the pouch for shelter and transportation. In many species the young are carried on the mother's back after the suckling stage. In addition to having a less efficient reproductive system than the placental mammals, marsupials are of generally lower intelligence.

Marsupials were once widespread over the earth, but were displaced in most regions as the more successful placental mammals evolved. The Australian region, which has been isolated from contact with other regions since the Cretaceous period, had almost no native placental mammals, and the marsupials were able to continue their evolution there without competition. They underwent an adaptive radiation in Australia comparable to that of placental mammals in the rest of the world, evolving many forms that superficially resemble various placental mammals and fill the same ecological niches. Thus, there are animals known as Tasmanian wolves (see thylacine), marsupial moles, marsupial mice, and native cats (see dasyure), which live very much like the correspondingly named placental mammals and, in many cases, are strikingly similar in appearance. See also bandicoot, numbat, phalanger, Tasmanian devil, wombat.


See H. Tyndale-Biscoe, Life of Marsupials (1973); A. K. Lee and A. Cockburn, Evolutionary Ecology of Marsupials (1985).

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(vertebrate zoology)
A member of the Marsupialia.
Having a marsupium.
Of, pertaining to, or constituting a marsupium.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


any mammal of the order Marsupialia, in which the young are born in an immature state and continue development in the marsupium. The order occurs mainly in Australia and South and Central America and includes the opossums, bandicoots, koala, wombats, and kangaroos
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The Secret Lives of Carnivorous Marsupials spans the carnivorous marsupials of Australia, the Americas and New Guinea.
The research marks the first successful sequencing of genes from this carnivorous marsupial, which looked like a large tiger-striped dog and became extinct in 1936.
63-81, in: Predators with pouches: The biology of carnivorous marsupials (ME Jones, CR Dickman, and M Archer, eds.).
Dr Diana Fisher of the University of Queensland has worked extensively with dasyurid marsupials (most of Australia's carnivorous marsupials are classified as dasyurid), including antechinuses and phascogales, and is doubtful many native species would make good pets.
The carnivorous marsupials are in danger of extinction from devil facial tumor disease, a contagious cancer.
Now, sadly, the largest of the world's carnivorous marsupials is gaining notoriety because of declining numbers brought about by a contagious form of cancer called facial tumour disease.
Although these carnivorous marsupials can survive as hunters, they prefer to feed on the carcasses of other creatures, including reptiles and amphibians.
Uniformity in relative proportions among skull, axial skeleton, and limbs is maintained across the larger carnivorous marsupials (Keast 1982), and on skull dimensions Dasyurus, Sarcophilus, and Thylacinus group together, distinct from the families of eutherian carnivores (Werdelin 1986).
285-296, in: Predators with pouches: The biology of carnivorous marsupials (M Jones, C Dickman, and M Archer, eds.).