AMRI scientists have found an unusual population of black-footed rock-wallabies from the central deserts of Western Australia – and surprisingly, the population didn’t seem to belong to any known subspecies…

Museum scientists are often taxonomists – that is we study, classify and describe biodiversity. But sometimes, we encounter unusual individuals or populations that defy our conventional classification schemes. While at first puzzling, these anomalous situations can help us shed light on the evolutionary processes that generate biodiversity.

The black-footed rock-wallaby, Petrogale lateralis, is patchily distributed across much of central and Western Australia. Within this widespread species, five distinct subspecies are recognised. Each are identified by the unique number and/or shape of their chromosomes, as well as their fur colour and body measurements.

A black-footed rock-wallaby from Townsend Ridges, WA

A black-footed rock-wallaby from Townsend Ridges, WA.

Image: David Pearson
© David Pearson

The warru or Central Australian rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis centralis has been newly recognized as a morphologically and genetically distinct subspecies.

The warru or Central Australian subspecies of the black-footed rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis centralis. One of the subspecies involved in the recently discovered novel hybrid zone.

Image: Mark Eldridge
© Australian Museum

In the 1990s, a small and anomalous population of black-footed rock-wallabies was identified at the Townsend Ridges near Warburton in central eastern Western Australia. These rock-wallabies had a mix of chromosomes from two different black-footed rock-wallaby subspecies. Some chromosomes were characteristic of the nearby warru, P. l. centralis found in central Australia and other chromosomes were typical of the wiliji, P. l. kimberleyensis which occurs on the southwest edge of the Kimberley, 1000 km away. Could these Townsend Ridges wallabies represent a novel hybrid zone between these two subspecies?

The distribution of the five black-footed rock-wallaby subspecies in central and western Australia, with the location of the Townsend Ridges indicated by a star.

The distribution of the five black-footed rock-wallaby subspecies in central and western Australia, with the location of the Townsend Ridges indicated by a star.

Image: Figure from Eldridge et al. 2021
© Australian Journal of Zoology online

To test for this, AMRI scientists recently conducted genetic research where we generated DNA sequence data from a mitochondrial DNA gene, which resulted in further complexity. While one Townsend Ridges individual had DNA typical of P. l. centralis (as expected), the remaining individuals had DNA most closely related to other black-footed subspecies and not to P. l. kimberleyensis. Not at all what we predicted!

Although the Townsend Ridges rock-wallabies do appear to represent a hybrid zone, the number and identity of the black-footed rock-wallaby subspecies involved remains uncertain. However, what is clear is that by combining genetic material from different subspecies (through hybridisation) the Townsend Ridges rock-wallabies could be on the way to forming their own new subspecies. So, while we might not be able to taxonomically classify the Townsend Ridges rock-wallabies, they have given us something more valuable; insight into the sometimes messy and complex processes by which new biodiversity can be generated.

Dr Mark Eldridge, Principal Research Scientist, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Australian Museum Research Institute.

Dr Sally Potter, Research Associate, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Australian National University.


We thank our collaborator Dr David Pearson from WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions for his tireless efforts. We are especially grateful to the Ngaanyatjarra Council, Ngaanyatjarra Council staff and members of the Warburton community for their support for the project and their assistance.

More information:

  • Eldridge, M.D.B., Pearson, D.J. and Potter, S. 2021. Identification of a novel hybrid zone within the black-footed rock-wallaby (Petrogale lateralis) in Western Australia. Australian Journal of Zoology , 68, 98–107.
  • Eldridge, M.D.B., and Pearson, D.J. (1997). Chromosomal rearrangements in rock wallabies, Petrogale (Marsupialia: Macropodidae). IX. Further G-banding studies of the Petrogale lateralis complex: P. lateralis pearsoni, the West Kimberley race, and a population heterozygous for a centric fusion. Genome 40, 84–90.
  • Pearson, D.J. (2004). Last bastion: the battle to save a desert rock-wallaby population. Landscope 19, 20–26.