Central Australia

Review: The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia

The Book: The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia - An Early Account by Alan E. Newsome
The Authors: Alan & Thomas Newsome

When first looking through The Red Kangaroo by Alan & Thomas Newsome, my first thoughts were something along the lines of wishing there were more books like it. The late Alan Newsome was one of Australia's most respected ecologists, known for pioneering countless research projects in Central Australia and integrating Indigenous knowledge with ecological insight. Indeed, throughout my brief scientific career, I’ve encountered and cited much of Alan's work.

In itself, the history behind the compilation of this text is fantastic. The story goes that Alan's son, Tom, found Alan's original notes and manuscript in the family garage several years ago, meekly labelled 'Red Kangaroo Book.' Along with the manuscript were notes from a potential publisher expecting it ready for publication in 1975. Thirty years later, after Tom happened across the box of notes, the work contained in The Red Kangaroo remains every bit as relevant.

The period in which this work was conducted represented an exciting time to be a desert ecologist in Australia. Alan's work contributed to much of our basic understanding of the region and its fauna, particularly the red kangaroo Osphranter rufous. Logically set out, this text showcases much of Alan's early work on the red kangaroo's ecology and life history, supported with data and images collected from those early field trips. Not only does this offer an insight into fundamental aspects of an iconic Australian species, but it also showcases how field ecology was conducted half a century ago.

The view was magnificent, and the ride, an armchair, we were just above the trees... there was no margin for error.
— Alan's description of an aerial kangaroo survey

Of particular interest is the chapter describing red kangaroo 'Ecomythology': the communication of red kangaroo ecology through Indigenous culture. Alan's research and conversations with traditional owners uncovered chants and songs detailing much of the red kangaroo's ecology, from its diet to its habitat preferences. Given this work occurred over fifty years ago, Alan was somewhat of a pioneer in integrating science and Indigenous knowledge, and his documentation of that process is fascinating.

Where The Red Kangaroo succeeds, however, is through Newsome's ability to marry scientific discovery with naturalism. Written from the perspective of a young scientist (Alan conducted this research as a 25- to 30-year-old in the 1950s and 60s), Alan's prose exudes a flair and love of his subject rarely seen in modern scientific writing. It's refreshing to come across a book not only steeped with data, but also language that reflects the sheer amount of knowledge of the landscape the author was working in. Consequently, The Red Kangaroo makes for an incredible read, regardless of the reader's background, whilst also standing out as an important contribution to Australian natural history and science.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you're at all interested in natural history and science, or the reasons why the red kangaroo is so adept at persisting in the harsh Australian desert. 

Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary