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I'm building basically Australian Wakanda, if you'll forgive the pop culture reference.

Australian aboriginal culture never made their own wheeled vehicles, but what if they had?

Image of kangaroo pulling chariot painted on stone

The closest thing to a potential beast of burden on their continent is the kangaroo. Speed of Animals says a red kangaroo can sustain a speed of 40km/h for two km, which is impressive, and compares well with the speed of camels.

Could they do more than 2km at a time? What's their endurance like? How far do wild kangaroos travel in a day? Could they go 40-50km a day like a horse can?

How many would be needed to pull the chariot? I'm picturing a lightweight chariot, not a cart. Build for speed, not to carry heavy loads like a wagon.

The red kangaroo ranges over nearly the whole continent, and is very strong — two big advantages. The Eastern grey kangaroo is smaller, though not by much, and has been recorded going faster (Wikipedia: Eastern grey kangaroo), though again I don't know if it's a sprinter or has endurance. It has a much more limited range and isn't adapted to Australia's deserts, making it a less attractive candidate, in my opinion, though I could be convinced otherwise.

What about the psychology and trainability? I think kangaroos have been put in circuses, implying training them is not an impossibility. Are their brains capable of bonding with humans? Do they do anything at circuses besides beat people up? Maybe they couldn't be tamed (in one generation) but could be domesticated (by breeding in captivity for generations) what do you think?


PS: I found this December 2020 article which says they can communicate with people, and says that the Western Grey kangaroo is more friendly.

PPS: Eastern Grey "Kangaroos moved on average 2.39 ± 0.62 km per day (accumulative distance between location fixes over a day) with the maximum distance moved by an individual on a single day being 4.39 km" according to GPS tags - that's not enough for a useful beast of burden

PPPS: A paper from 2013 'Energy, water and space use by free-living red kangaroos Macropus Rufus and domestic sheep Ovis Aries in an Australian rangeland' reports they travelled an average 3.646 ± 0.301 km per day. You'd think it'd be further with them so big and fast.

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    $\begingroup$ Dingo dogs are much better suited to draw (light) chariots than kangaroos... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 27 '21 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ I imagine it would need a heavy-duty suspension. $\endgroup$
    – Spencer
    Jun 27 '21 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ Did you know? Some scientists managed to domesticate foxes in 50 years. They're still rather wild right now, but my point is if you give enough time and efforts, it's not unreasonable to think you'll be able to domesticate (and make obedient) quite about anything, as long as you can breed them in captivity. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Jun 28 '21 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ I think there is major problem with the fact that kangaroos jump and don't walk. It's not about going up and down a lot, the issue is that in a jump they are fully in the air while moving forward whereas with walking you always have one foot on the ground. Try that at home with a wheelbarrow. Grab it and then try to jump forward while pushing it. If the wheelbarrow moves at all it will still be absurdly inefficient and exhausting comparing to walking while pushing. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Jun 28 '21 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman I took "Australian Wakanda" and "what if Australian aboriginal culture had made their own wheeled vehicles" to mean that this is about a group of indigenous Australians who developed this technology prior to European colonisation. You know cows aren't native Australian animals, right? They were introduced by the British. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Jun 28 '21 at 23:54

12 Answers 12

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Use emu

kangaroo is not going to work well, their hopping is efficient but horrible for pulling a load. They will waste a tremendous amount of energy if they try. because both legs must move together they can only produce short power strokes with long delays in between which is awful for dragging a load, especially with a light animal. Likely they are going to be reduced to 5 leg walking, which is slow, inefficient, and again they will run out of energy quickly.

You would be better off with large ground birds like emu or large extinct marsupials like diprotodons. with emu you will need several, at least until they start breeding them for size and strength. diprotodons on the other hand come in any size you want up to 3 tons.

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    $\begingroup$ Ostrich carts definitely existed, and emus have apparently been ridden; while a quick search doesn't prove that emus have been used to pull carts, this certainly seems like the best approach $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Jun 28 '21 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ I really like this diprotodon suggestion considering more than one theory about their extinction is human caused. So, what if humans instead domesticated them instead of hunting or destroying their habitat? Perfect sort of thing for a plausible alternate history. $\endgroup$ Jun 28 '21 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ If an emu draws a cart, does that make it a chocobo? :) $\endgroup$ Jun 30 '21 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Panzercrisis however despite being black emu cannot fly. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 30 '21 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ Or the Cassowary. Heavier comes with a horn and a dagger-like claw. theconversation.com/… $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Jun 30 '21 at 23:00
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I love this idea!

Now, I hope not to offend you — but I love it because I'd laugh for a week to see it in a movie. Just thinking it through in my head makes me want to curl up and giggle for an hour. Here's what I'm thinking.

enter image description here Image "Straight 5" from Imagur

This is how you get a bunch of hoppy-jumpy things like pistons (and kangaroos) to produce consistent power in one direction. You get them to hop at different times!

So I'm thinking you have a chariot with 6 or 8 kangaroos who have all been trained to hop at different times so that the result is a smooth ride for the charioteer.

You need to remember that "chariot" and "wagon" are very different things

Now, your question is a bit complex and it's asking a lot of questions (remember that you're supposed to ask only one). But some of your concerns are resolved when you remember that there is a big difference between a chariot and a wagon.

  • A wagon is heavy and pulled at a slow speed for long periods of time.
  • A chariot is light and pulled at high speed for short periods of time.

A kangaroo would likely be a mediocre replacement for a draft horse. In fact, it would be a terrible replacement for a draft horse. On the other hand, I think they'd make for a fascinating chariot engine.

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    $\begingroup$ You get the kitsch appeal that drew me to the idea in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – YesOrNo
    Jun 27 '21 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: The 'roos kind of have to all jump at the same time, else you end up with 'roos jumping on each other. The pistons on a crankshaft have the advantage that the other pistons are automatically moved each time one piston fires. The 'roos would have to jump, then move out of the way for the next 'roo. What I see happening with multiple 'roos is just a frog jumping free for all, with everything getting tangled within seconds of the first jump. $\endgroup$
    – JRE
    Jun 28 '21 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ @JRE, how do they jump on each other? They're in their individual positions. At most the harness would need to be creatively designed to allow for the independent suspension needed for the movement. (Embrace the madness, JRE! Embrace it!) $\endgroup$ Jun 28 '21 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ This is excellent. The complexity of the design might not fit the setting, but I'd love a good a steampunk kangaroo harness. Cams / mechanical links powering wheels (pistons)? Syncopated jumps for direct translation? Gas cylinders where jumps/jerks compress a tank (reverse high pressure pump)? Flexible medium (rubber band harness)? $\endgroup$
    – ptyx
    Jun 28 '21 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @ptyx I'M IN WITH THE STEAMPUNK KANGAROO HARNESS! This whole thing has "Tank Girl" written all over it. Can't you just see some crazy Mad-Max-ish movie with underpaid nobody actors raking in millions with this kind of thing? I'd pay for the ticket. $\endgroup$ Jun 28 '21 at 23:06
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"Skippy" says it all

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was a TV show that ran for a few years in Australia. As noted in the linked article and in documentaries on production, representing the single title character was achieved with "Between nine and fifteen kangaroos were used for each show" (emphasis mine). That is, the kangaroos were so untrainable that they just took as much footage as possible of as many kangaroos as possible, added in the close-ups of kangaroo-paws-on-sticks that were used to simulate Skippy untying captives, defusing bombs or whatever, and edited it all together as an episode. Kangaroos just aren't smart enough to train to do complex tasks.

The other problems associated with kangaroos as draft animals include:

  • extreme variation in force/time exerted on harness
  • body plan that is not conducive to an efficient harness
  • use as a team requires that every jump is perfectly coordinated (or a) one kangaroo will be overrun by the chariot as the other leaps ahead; and b) changing direction becomes a nightmare)
  • laziness (low daily activity)

As other posters have suggested, go with emus - it's at least vaguely possible to build a plausible harness for them.

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    $\begingroup$ Forget "vaguely possible" to build a emu harness and make that "doable". It has been done for ostriches to pull a sulky. If it works for an ostrich it will work for an emu too, because they have essentially the same body-plan. Emu's are just a bit smaller. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Jun 28 '21 at 9:48
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Disclaimer, I'm basing this answer on my inherent knowledge gleaned from being an Australian.

Not Kangaroos

Kangaroo's are pretty lazy, as noted by your ~3km range a day. Almost every time you see a kangaroo (or wallaby) in the wild, they're lying down under a tree. Even if you could build a cart that would accommodate their unique locomotion, motivating them would be the hardest part in my opinion.

Likely animals

Dingo. They're as ubiquitous as the Kangaroo, and can be trained and could pull a sled. The Australian landscape is either "rain forest" or "nothing" so sleds would be good for the latter and chariots would not be good for the former anyway.

Emu. They're also fairly widespread, and for bonus point's are ride able like a horse, if you're brave enough. So they could make a reasonable analogue for horses.

Bonus Points

Cassowary as shock troops. These things are the size of an emu and will mess you up. I'll just leave this quote with you.

Cassowaries have three-toed feet with sharp claws. The second toe, the inner one in the medial position, sports a dagger-like claw that may be 125 mm (5 in) long. This claw is particularly fearsome, since cassowaries sometimes kick humans and other animals with their powerful legs. Cassowaries can run at up to 50 km/h (30 mph) through the dense forest and can jump up to 1.5 m (5 ft). They are good swimmers, crossing wide rivers and swimming in the sea.

They're basically a Velociraptor crossed with the Terminator that's the size of an average man and can outrun a man on a bike in any terrain.

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    $\begingroup$ Emus aren't gonna support an adult human the way a horse would, but they could pull a chariot $\endgroup$
    – YesOrNo
    Jun 27 '21 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ everyone knows the Emu's would never put up with this. they'd rebel, win the war and enslave the humans $\endgroup$ Jun 29 '21 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ that just sounds like more plot points @CaptainBumbleFudge $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Jun 29 '21 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ "They can, currently, support a human somewhat." - I'm imagining you writing that comment while sitting on an emu $\endgroup$
    – Aaron F
    Jun 29 '21 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ When horses were first domesticated they were significantly smaller and weaker, which is part of the reason they were used for pulling light chariots rather than riding. As they were bred for size and power they were able to pull heavier loads and accommodate heavier riders. Presumably if you had a civilization that decided to use emus as a draft animal they could breed them in a similar way and eventually have a much more powerful domesticated version of them. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Jun 30 '21 at 16:53
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As others have said in their answers, kangaroos are not a good choice, but if Santa Claus can use six white boomers (male kangaroos) in Australia, instead of the reindeer he uses in the northern hemisphere, then maybe you can adapt. Some thinking music.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some may find it easier to think with the Wayfarers' cover $\endgroup$
    – mcalex
    Jun 29 '21 at 18:54
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Kangaroos move forwards by hopping. They are quite graceful, and very efficient in their use of energy to move.

The problem is going to be one of power, not speed. The largest kangaroo is the big red. It weighs up to 90kg. In comparison, horses weigh 500-1000kg. Even a miniature horse weighs about 130 kg. A harnessed horse will be able to pull 2/3 of its weight.

Australia, until relatively recently, had a wonderful collection of giant beasts.

The largest Diprotodon was 1-3 tonnes. Plenty of pulling power and bigger than any horse or even cow. Just a question of how to tame them?

Please also make a place for the Carnifex, a giant marsupial lion with enormous slicing cheek teeth, mighty incisors and a thumb claw competitive with any raptor.

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How would a kangaroo-drawn chariot work?

: it wouldn't.

Kangaroo locomote by hopping, with tendons in their legs storing elastic energy as they land an releasing it as they bound away on their next hop¹. As such they don't use much energy to travel at the speed that they do - and as they increase speed their oxygen consumption stays nearly constant. Hence, if you take out energy from their hopping by putting a chariot behind them, the kangaroo(s) would need to replace it with muscular energy they don't have and stop hopping. Which would probably explain stories in Australia of kangaroos falling over backwards when attempting to use them as carriage horses².

As others have suggested dingoes or emus might be a better choice.

camels:

Camels were imported as a draft animal in the 19th century and have since gone wild. Depending on when the story is set they are at least a current day possibility.

¹ Elastic Energy and The Kangaroo, JP Cannistraro, May 11, 2017

² If they existed.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree especially the 0-10 mph acceleration would be very difficult for independently bouncing kangaroos with only 2 legs. If you watch a horse cart pull they really need 4 legs to offset the strain. $\endgroup$
    – jmbmage
    Jun 28 '21 at 12:37
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Use elastic leashes

What I have in mind looks similar to a dog sled. Each Kangaroo has its own elastic leash that connects it to the main leash. With proper balancing of leash lengths and materials, the elasticity even out the unregular hopping motion and provide a somewhat even pull, while also allowing the kangaroos to move without too much restriction.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm... won't this pull the kangaroos backwards whilst they're airborne, stopping their jumping motion from functioning correctly? $\endgroup$ Jun 28 '21 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley I'm not a kangaroo so it's hard to know for sure, but the thought is that the elasticity enables it to work. For the kangaroo, pulling the sled at constant speed should feel similar to accelerating without a sled, as the elastic leash keeps the backwards force relatively constant. $\endgroup$
    – MaxD
    Jun 28 '21 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley I think the trick would be to extract just the right amount of energy from each hop - enough to pull the cart forward, but not enough to completely bring the kangaroo to a full stop or pull it backward. You'd adjust that with the elasticity of the leash and the weight of the cart. Also, you should find a way to attach the leash lower than the kangaroo's center of gravity. Of course, if the kangaroo doesn't cooperate and hops in the wrong direction, all bets are off ;-) $\endgroup$ Jun 30 '21 at 4:32
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Build a rowing machine.

The kangaroo(s) jump and pulls on a tether, that has gears that spins up a flywheel. The chariot's wheels are driven by the flywheel.

This disconnects the kangaroo movement from having to match the speed of the chariot, while still permitting energy to be drawn from the jumping kangaroo.

The rate at which the flywheel is converted to forward motion can be controlled, as can the tension on the tethers (how much energy is pulled from the kangaroos).

You'd need counter-rotating flywheels to prevent insane gyroscopic effects, and the failure mode would be ridiculously explosive. Also the materials science requirements are pretty intense.

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Kangaroos have a couple of logistical issues.

First is that long tail. That's a terrible thing to have when pulling a wheeled vehicle. You'd need relatively long leads to avoid running over your steed's tail, particularly when stopping. As leads grow longer the whole thing becomes harder and harder to steer and control.

Second, those kangaroo speed measurements you mentioned were average speeds. If you make a chart of a running kangaroo's instantaneous speed, it would look something like a sawtooth wave, with a pulse of power as they thrust their legs that would drop off until the next jump. Hitching that sort of power source to a chariot means the ride would be far from smooth. The occupant would get jerked forward with every bound. Simply staying inside the chariot would be a feat in itself.

A big problem is that kangaroos don't bank like a horse when turning. They cut side to side, and can do so with impressive agility. That's great if you're evading a predator, but it would overturn a chariot or eject its passenger.

When moving at slow speeds, kangaroos use a combination of both legs, both arms, and their tail in a gait that's inefficient and a bit awkward. That particular gait would make it difficult for a kangaroo to accelerate a chariot from rest to running speeds.

Geometrically, even just building that harness/yoke would be hard. Kangaroo shoulders are small and have a gentle slope to them. A harness like that would tend to slip backwards and would do a poor job of distributing the load over a broad area. The harness would be relatively painful to wear, compared to a horse.

Even though they come equipped with their own saddlebags, kangaroos would not be a practical choice for pulling a chariot.

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Wombats!

Point 1) They are well muscled and have strong frames combined with good endurance if not speed (Although they can be quite fast over short distances.) They are also probably the most intelligent of the marsupials family and adapt readily to living around humans.

Point 2) Selective Breeding!. Like horses upon being domesticated humans started selectively breeding them for size and endurance in order to make better mounts. Just like we selectivity breed every other animal we domesticate for desired traits. In this case just like horses your aboriginal culture would have started breeding them for size long before they go to point where they started using chariots, firstly for meat then as pack animals.

Lastly, and these were apparently still around when aboriginals first arrived on the continent (as were giant kangaroos) if they had managed to domesticate them before they became extinct. I give you;

Dipordedon. The giant wombat.

Reconstruction of Dipordedon to scale

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  • $\begingroup$ I second the Diprotodon. They were large land dwelling animals that could have conceivably been used as beasts burden - probably not fast, but strong and good for hauling heavy loads. I came across a fantasy web comic had carts drawn by diprotodons (or something that looked like them - the author said they weren't actually). thisroughmagiccomic.com/01-23 $\endgroup$ Jul 1 '21 at 1:36
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This sounds about as effective as a jellyfish powered speedboat. [Sorry, SpongeBob :( ]

I would expect if you could get them to move on command in a useful direction, you would be prone to neck injuries from the jerking motion of each jump. Teaming them wouldn't work well to mitigate the jerking motion because they would self synchronize and you would want to keep them evenly offset in a team.

Aside from what has been mentioned, you would be looking at a long term selective breeding program depending on how slippery their genome is. For example canids have a very malleable genome which is what allows for so much variation in physical size, patterning, temperament, coat types, and intelligence. Horses by contrast, don't have as much of a range of variation even though we have bread them for almost as long as dogs (on the whole, not individually).

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