The tammar wallaby is one of the most thoroughly studied marsupials in the world. And it is now the first member of the kangaroo family (Macropodidae) to have its genome sequenced, providing scientists with an opportunity to investigate the genes underlying marsupial reproduction and development and to take a closer look at marsupial and mammalian evolution.
Marsupials form one of three divisions of mammals (the other two are the monotremes and the placental mammals) and are distinguished by their unique reproductive strategy. Female tammar wallabies (Macropus eugenii), for example, give birth to live but incompletely developed young. Relative to placental mammals such as humans, gestation time is short, lasting only about 26–28 days, at which time the newly born bean-sized joey climbs up and into the mother’s pouch, where it attaches to a teat and suckles milk. The joey will spend the next nine months completing its development in the pouch before finally being weaned.
This extraordinary reproductive strategy has been the source of intense investigation, particularly because of its evolutionary significance. Placental mammals are by far the most numerous type of mammal alive today, likely in part because placental development provides time for offspring to develop completely by birth. While this process is more demanding on the mother, environmental risks to offspring are low, thereby improving the chances of survival once born.
In contrast, newborn marsupials, in their incompletely developed state, are highly vulnerable to environmental factors. But there is a trade-off—the energy investment in reproduction by adult female marsupials is relatively low, which can be valuable in environments where food resources are subject to rapid change. Hence, the complete development of marsupial offspring will occur only in years when environmental conditions favor the survival of both mother and offspring.
Marsupials are also among a unique group of animals that make use of a phenomenon known as embryonic diapause, in which the development of a new embryo is suspended for a period time. Thus, in the tammar wallaby, shortly after the joey is born and enters the pouch, its mother will mate again. The development of the embryo from this new pairing, however, is delayed for about 11 months in diapause, its growth being inhibited by lactation that supports the joey already growing in the mother’s pouch. Embryonic diapause allows the tammer wallaby and other marsupials to maintain their seasonal breeding patterns.
With the full genetic code of the tammar wallaby now known, scientists will be able to gain insight into the evolution of the genes and molecular biology behind marsupials' development and reproductive strategy. In addition, the latest research offers an exciting opportunity for new discoveries concerning mammal biology and the mammalian genome in general.
Kara Rogers is the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is also a member of the National Association of Science Writers and a contributor to the Britannica Blog, where she runs a series called Science Up Front. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology, but enjoys reading and writing about all things science. You can follow her on Twitter at @karaerogers.
This post also appears on the Britannica Blog.