Mysterious Marsupials: The Case of the Phantom Kangaroo

They’re native to Australia, yet kangaroos have been sighted as far afield as Europe, the Americas, and Japan. The phenomenon is called phantom kangaroos. And we’re on it.

5 June 2024

Kangaroos are known for many things, from their exuberant hopping to the females’ pouches. But above all, they’re associated with their native Australia. They’re even the country’s national animal. The only other place they’re naturally found is New Guinea. So, how could there be wild kangaroos in Europe, the United States, or Japan?

Because, as strange as it seems, reports of what is known as the “phantom kangaroo” phenomenon have been documented for at least a century. Want to know more about these mysterious kangaroos, appearing in places where they should not exist? Let’s hop to it.

The Phantom Kangaroo Phenomenon

Red kangaroos (Credit: Jami Tarris via Getty Images)

Phantom kangaroos are those reported to be seen in the wild in locations far from their native habitats of Australia and New Guinea. These would only include mysterious kangaroos sighted and not those known to have escaped from zoos or private ownership. Even within these parameters, sightings have been recorded worldwide, with a surprising number of reports coming from places as diverse as the United States, Europe, and even Japan. The term “phantom kangaroo” would seem to imply that there’s no concrete evidence for such non-native creatures. This was certainly true of many early sightings. However, there’s no shortage of verified sightings. And, with the ubiquitousness of cameras, many of these come with photo evidence.

Notable Sightings and Encounters

Have kangaroos been spotted in Japan's Miyagi prefecture? (Credit: DoctorEgg via Getty Images)

One of the most famous cases of a phantom kangaroo sighting occurred in Chicago, Illinois in 1974. Several residents reported seeing a giant kangaroo hopping through the streets and fields. This was confirmed when police attempted, and ultimately failed, to apprehend the animal. But not before it kicked one officer in the shin. It was never sighted again. Another spate of sightings occurred in Japan in 2010, when some thirty people in Osaki city in Miyagi prefecture said they’d seen kangaroo-like animals in the mountainous region.

There have also been reports of kangaroos in Europe, particularly in the UK. These mysterious kangaroos have been seen hopping across fields and even causing minor traffic accidents. More common however are sightings of the smaller member of the kangaroo family, the wallaby. Indeed, there were 95 confirmed wallaby sightings in the UK between 2008 and 2018. These only included those that were accompanied by photographic evidence and were not from a known escape. There were even sightings of two females with joeys in their pouches, as well as a lone male in 2009 and 2010. The vast majority of these were in southern England.

Theories and Explanations

Rambouillet forest in France (Credit: Marc Robillard / 500px via Getty Images)

There are several theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon of phantom kangaroos.

Escaped Pets & Zoos

One of the most plausible explanations is that these are escaped pets or zoo animals. Kangaroos are exotic pets in some parts of the world, and it’s not unheard of for them to escape and roam free. Zoos and wildlife parks also occasionally lose animals due to accidental escapes, and these kangaroos could be mistaken for wild, phantom kangaroos.

However, sometimes, captive kangaroos can become wild. There are several known cases of pockets of phantom kangaroo communities in various countries. In the UK, four wallabies were deliberately released on a Loch Lomond island in 1950 and became a community that’s thought to still exist. In France, there are around a hundred wallabies living in Rambouillet forest near Paris after an escape from a zoological reserve in the 1970s.

Mistaken Identity

Another theory suggests that some sightings might result from mistaken identity. Animals such as dogs or deer have been reported as phantom kangaroos in the past.

Mass Hysteria & Urban Legends

Mass hysteria and urban legends also play a role in perpetuating the myth of the phantom kangaroo. When one person reports a sighting, it can create a ripple effect, leading others to believe they have seen the same thing. The power of suggestion, combined with the human tendency to find patterns and explanations for the unexplained, can turn a simple misidentification into a widespread belief in mysterious kangaroos.

Biological Plausibility

Are there wild kangaroos outside Australia? (Credit: John W. Banagan via Getty Images)

One important question in the phantom kangaroo phenomenon is whether it’s possible for the world’s largest marsupial to thrive, or even survive, outside their native homes. And, if so, how could they go largely undetected?

Dealing with the latter question first, kangaroos tend to be active between dusk and dawn, darkness thus offering them a certain amount of cover. As for what they need to survive, kangaroos are herbivores, so can happily find sustenance anywhere there’s grass, flowers, fruit, and other such vegetation. In terms of climate, they’re widely distributed across Australia in various conditions. Some prefer arid, open plains, others rocky landscapes and yet others tropical woodlands. This would match up with many temperate countries as well as hotter ones.

Phantom Kangaroos: Not Such a Mystery

Western grey kangaroos (Credit: Lea Scaddan via Getty Images)

In summary, most cases of supposedly mysterious kangaroos are plucky escapees, whether from private collections or zoos. Nevertheless, there are some unexplained sightings. And then there are the fascinating instances of escaped animals going native; adapting to their new environment and breeding to form new – if far flung – communities.


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