Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Kangaroos on Machu Picchu?

The late marsupialist John A.W. Kirsch was interviewed by a local (Peruvian) newspaper while on a collecting trip in South America back at the end of the 1960s. He described the kinds of animals he was looking for and was shocked to see the headline a few days later: KANGAROOS ON MACHU PICCHU.

While it’s true that the mammal group we call marsupials includes the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, koalas, and bandicoots that are usually associated with Australia, and that the New World once did boast a rich and diverse marsupial fauna, most of the New World forms are now extinct and, sad to say, there are no kangaroos on Machu Picchu.

Image of an Opossum from Nieremberg's Historia naturae (1635).

Opossums (and yes, there are several pictured above): Juan Eusebio Nieremberg (1595-1658).  Historia naturae. Antverpiae: ex Officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti, 1635. Call Number: Summerfield E1105. Click image to enlarge (and reveal the well-camouflaged opossum young.)

The marsupial heyday began to end circa three million years ago when a land bridge over the Isthmus of Panama provided for northern migration of animals including the ancestors of our familiar opossum, who dates back to around 35 million years ago and looks today pretty much the same as he did then. During the same period, some of the northern placental mammals migrated south over the same land-bridge. Thus, for example, it appears that the placental sabre-toothed tiger from the North began to compete with the marsupial sabre-toothed tiger and soon put him on the road to extinction. But the marsupials are survivors, nevertheless, and the American opossum, the only one of the family in North America, is just one of seventy some opossum species to survive; the ‘possum family is restricted to the New World, and except for Didelphis virginiana, whose range extends from southern Canada into Central America, the rest of the family is restricted to Central and South America.

Earlier travel accounts and herbals had described the plants and animals of the New World, but Juan Eusebio Nieremberg’s account was the first comprehensive natural history of the area, dealing primarily with Mexico and the West Indies. This illustration of the Virginia or American opossum is the earliest printed portrait of the earliest discovered (by Europeans, at least) marsupial anywhere.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger

Adapted from her Kenneth Spencer Research Library exhibit, The Haunted Forest: New World Plants & Animals (1992).

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