Australia’s rock-wallabies are world famous for their variation. Now, rock-wallabies take centre stage in a major new oratorio: Origins – of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity.

The late, great Australian researcher Des Cooper was fond of saying, "Rock-wallabies form new species every time they cross a creek." Famous for their variation, rock-wallabies take centre stage in a new oratorio, performed by Heidelberg Choral Society and Orchestra and conducted by Peter Bandy.

Conceived and co-written by well-known Australian evolutionary geneticist, Prof Jenny Graves, it tells the creation story from science, emphasising how new species can emerge when populations become genetically different.

Origins poster.

Origins – of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity poster.

Image: Professor Jenny Graves
© Professor Jenny Graves

Dr Mark Eldridge, Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum, agrees that rock-wallabies are a wonderful model system to understand speciation. Over many years, he and his colleagues have been studying the relationships amongst Australia’s 17 species of rock-wallaby and trying to understand the processes by which new species have originated. What they have discovered is that some species formed only recently, within the last half million years, and that although they look very similar major differences in the number and shape of their chromosomes prevents them from successfully interbreeding.

The role of chromosomal and other genomic changes in driving species formation makes rock-wallabies a textbook example of speciation. One that is justifiably famous as a model system in global scientific circles.

A yellow-footed rock wallaby
A yellow-footed rock wallaby Image: Babs and Bert Wells
© Australian Museum

Origins is a full-length oratorio with 21 movements. In her number on speciation, Jenny wrote a double chorus that represents a population of rock-wallabies that start off as one species and end up as two. Women sing the hippity hoppity part of little nimble animals with stripey tails that scamper up the cliffs, and men sing the slow and relaxed part of darker animals with bushy tails, lazing in eucalypt shade.

“I know of no other attempt to describe speciation in music,” says Jenny Graves. “This could become a classic and a fun teaching tool.” Origins will be premiered on July 18th 2023 in the Melbourne Recital Centre by a 100-voice choir, full orchestra and well known soloists. It will be a night to make you think, despair, laugh and celebrate the role of science in our understanding and stewardship of our beautiful little planet.

“It is very pleasing to have rock-wallabies recognised in this major new artistic work,” says Mark. “Jenny is to be congratulated for taking on such a monumental endeavour combining science and art”.

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

Prof Jenny Graves, FAA, AC, Distinguished Professor and VC Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

More information:

  • Potter, S., Moritz, C. and Eldridge, M.D.B. 2015. Gene flow despite complex Robertsonian fusions amongst rock-wallaby (Petrogale) species. Biology Letters 11: 20150731.
  • Potter, S., Bragg, J.G., Blom, M.P.K. Deakin, J.E., Kirkpatrick, M., Eldridge, M.D.B. and Moritz, C. 2017. Chromosomal speciation in the genomics era: disentangling phylogenetic evolution of rock-wallabies. Frontiers in Genetics 8: 10.
  • Eldridge, M.D.B. and Potter, S. 2020. Taxonomy of rock-wallabies, Petrogale (Marsupialia: Macropodidae). V. A description of two new subspecies of the black-footed rock-wallaby (Petrogale lateralis). Australian Journal of Zoology 67: 19-26.
  • 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.
  • Potter, S., Bragg, J.G., Turakulov, R., Eldridge, M.D.B., Deakin, J., Kirkpatrick, M., Edwards, R.J. and Moritz, C. 2022. Limited introgression between rock-wallabies with extensive chromosomal rearrangements. Molecular Biology and Evolution 39: msab333.