As I change my focus with this next book, I will alter my blogposts accordingly. I plan to alternate between posts about Australia’s unique animals and the challenges they face. I also aim to interview caregivers and veterinarians about their work and challenges, and in time I hope to have guest blog posts from said people about their daily lives. In this spirit, my first post is about my personal favorite, the koala.
Often when I see something on social media that I find adorable and want to show it to Brian, I have to promise him it is not a koala before he will look at it, because he is so koala’ed out. Nevertheless, I am not the only person mesmerized by these furry critters. In fact, according to the Australian Koala Foundation, this iconic animal is worth approximately $3.2 billion annually in tourism and generates 30,000 jobs. These numbers are similar to other top Australian tourist attractions including the Sydney Opera House ($4.6 billion) and the Great Barrier Reef ($5.7 billion) annually. (Australian Koala Foundation, n.d).
Unfortunately, the international admiration of these unique animals is not shared by Australian politicians. In fact, John Brown, the Australian Minister for Tourism in the 1980s referred to them as, “Flea-ridden, piddling, stinking, scratching, rotten little things” (5 Dimensionz, 2019). As recently as 2020, the former Premier (equivalent to governor in the United States) of New South Wales, John Barilaro regularly referred to them as “tree rats” and often fought against any legislation intended to protect them and their habitat.
Regrettably, politicians’ disdain for koalas is not the only threat which faces them. Due to a variety of factors such as disease, habitat loss, vehicle strikes, dog attacks, climate change and human indifference, the areas of New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory declared them endangered under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act in February 2022 (Australian Government: Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water, n.d.). For brevity sake, I will write one post on some interesting facts about these unique animals to help explain why so much of the world is fascinated and I will write a follow up piece with the specific dangers they face and what can be done to help protect them.
The scientific name for the koala is the Phascolarctos cinereus. Phacolarctos is derived from 2 Greek words: ‘phaskolos’ which means pouch, and ‘arktos’, or bear. Cnereus is defined as ash-colored, or gray, which describes the color of their fur (Australian Koala Foundation, n.d). British zoologist George Perry first used this name to describe the animal in 1810. It is noteworthy, that the first Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788, but it took them more than ten years to notice the new animal, and twenty additional years to scientifically define them (Clode, 2023).
The term koala comes from one (although it unclear which one) of the 250 Indigenous languages and it means “no drink” (Clode, 2023). Although koalas survive with limited water, it is a bit misnomer to state they need no water. Typically, the moisture from the eucalyptus leaves they eat provides them with enough hydration to survive. Nevertheless, during periods of extreme heat and drought, they are forced to increase their water intake from free standing water and even sitting in water bowls. It has become extremely common to see signs from wildlife carers which ask people to leave bowls of water out for wildlife during the hot summer months. One point worth mentioning, one should always leave a bowl with water for koala to drink from—people should avoid pouring water directly into the koala’s mouth because that could cause a koala to develop pneumonia and die. The internet is filled with photos of well-meaning people sharing their water bottles with animals, and it is important to educate the public that this could be potentially dangerous, so water bowls are the preferred method to ensure the animal gets the water it needs.
Despite the worldwide misconception, koalas are NOT bears, but rather marsupials. This means that females carry their young, or joey, in a pouch. Koalas, kangaroos, and wombats are just a few examples of the 335 native Australian marsupials. European settlers first gave the name bear to describe these animals because of their similarities. However, fair warning, if one refers to koalas as “koala bears” in the presence of wildlife experts or koala lovers, an emphatic response of “They are NOT BEARS” will likely result.
Koalas live in eastern and south-eastern Australia, including the states of: New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and South Australia. They are found mainly in areas with abundant eucalyptus trees, which provide them with the necessary food and shelter. Although there is only one species of koala, there are two distinct physical variations –northern and southern. The southern species are found in South Australia and Victoria. They tend to be larger than their norther cousins with longer and denser brown, gray fur. Southern male koalas may weigh up to 33 pounds and females up to 20 pounds. On the other hand, the northern koalas live in New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory and Queensland. They have shorter, courser, brown fur and are smaller than the others. The males weigh approximately 12 pounds a nd the females weighing 8 pounds. Despite the physical differences, both species are similar with respect to diet, behavior, breeding, and reproductive habits.
These marsupials are primarily nocturnal herbivores. They live in trees and generally only descend during mating season or to climb to another tree. Despite being primarily climbers, they can walk (or more accurately describe as crawling) as fast as twenty miles an hour on the ground when necessary. They also are capable swimmers, and because their fur is generally waterproof, they enjoy the rain.
Despite their cuteness, koalas have extremely sharp and dangerous claws which helps them climb. Without too much effort, they can seriously damage someone, which is one reason they should be handled only by trained wildlife personnel. Additionally, they have not one disposable thumbs like humans, but two, and 3 fingers. One of the most interesting things about them is that they have fingerprints very much like humans. The two are so similar that biologists argue if someone found a set of human and koala next to one another, a DNA test would need to be conducted to identify the animal’s prints (Medium, 2023).
Koalas are notoriously picky eaters. Their diet consists primarily of eucalyptus leaves, but not any trees. Of the more than eight hundred different species of eucalyptus throughout Australia, only seventy are recognized as koala food trees, and from these, any one individual koala might only eat from a maximum of ten different species, with manna Gums or river red gums being their favorite when they are available. If that were not bad enough, zookeepers have reported that these fussy animals prefer the tips of the leaves because they are the freshest, youngest, and juiciest part of the leaves (Clode, 2023). One can hardly blame a koala—if someone is willing to cater to them and feed them only the best, why shouldn’t they demand it? In all seriousness, given how particular they are about their food, it is not surprising that they face extinction. The flip side to that comment, given how specialized their diet is, and how cherished koalas are to the Australian country, more efforts need to be made to ensure that these food and homes for these animals are protected. Although eucalyptus leaves are the primary source of their diet, it is not their only source. Occasionally they have been known to eat tea tree, pine needles, wattles, she-oaks, and paperbark species. However, it is unclear how nutritious these non-eucalypt species are for them.
Because they typically sleep between 18-20 hours a day, there has been a widespread misconception that the eucalyptus leaves are psychotropic drugs and that they sleep so much because they are stoned. While it makes for an interesting story, it could not be further from the truth. As it turns out, the gum leaves koalas eat have very little nutritional value, so the time koalas sleep is a way for them to conserve energy. I often jokingly comment on photos of sleeping koalas, “Being that cute is exhausting.”
The eucalyptus that provides kolas with their primary nutritional support is poisonous and difficult to digest, so they have adapted a unique, and what many could deem rather disgusting method of addressing this problem—joeys eat their mother’s feces. Known as pap, the green material found in the mother’s caecum provides a combination of nutrients and bacteria the animal needs to develop the necessary gut to digest the poisonous gum leaves which joeys eat for the rest of their lives once weaned from their mother’s (Clode, 2023). Biology is fascinating if it is not sometimes a bit bizarre.
Due to the toxicity of their food, koala’s livers have to metabolize toxins and their adaptability to do so has created some difficult side effects. For example, it is extremely challenging to treat them for diseases because their bodies treat antibiotics and anesthetics like toxins, to be neutralized by their livers. What this means to non-biologists, is that it would take koalas a daily dose of medication repeated for 30-45 days to be treated for something that a human could be cured from with one single dose (Clode, 2023). One of the biggest threats facing koalas today is chlamydia which can cause blindness, infertility, and even death. The impact of this disease and the problems of finding a cure will be addressed in an upcoming post.
Breeding season is generally from September to February. During this time koalas are found wandering their home ranges to search for a mate with whom they can breed. Wildlife experts argue that breeding is a fairly noisy affair, with a combination of screaming, grunting, and growling, and it is often difficult to determine what is fighting and what is not. In theory, koalas, have a polygynous mating system—with one male mating with more than one female. (Clode, 2023).
Males have a deep, low-pitched noise called “bellowing” they use when searching for a companion (see the link for a youtube video of this practice at the end of this article) Females are meticulous about their mates and invoke multiple strategies to ensure they breed only with their chosen mate. For example, they approach certain males and avoid others, or they hide in treetops that cannot support the weight of the larger males. On the other hand, the males tend to be less selective and hitting on any female koala, — even if their advances are rejected. Nevertheless, males usually successfully mate with one or 2 females, and an interesting note that researchers have found, there is evidence to suggest that koalas are more likely to mate with females they have previously mated with, which may also be a function of female choice (Clode, 2023).
After the age of four, male koalas have a large gland on their chest, which is typically visible as a dark strip in their white fur. (The photo of me with the koala is a male, and his scent mark is visible ) The animals rub this patch on the trunks or trees that they climb. This gland can differentiate between unfamiliar and familiar males from their smell. Scent marking provides males an opportunity to announce its presence to females and rivals.
Koalas are mammals, and give birth to their young, which are called joeys. The incubation period, like most marsupials, is approximately 33 days. They give birth to tiny hairless being about the size of a lima bean. Once born, the neonate crawls through their mother’s fur into a soft, sterile pouch, where they attach themselves onto a nipple and mature where they remain for about six months before they emerge into the real world.
Once weaned, young koalas generally remain in their mother’s home range for a year before they leave home. Daughters typically remain close to their mother—usually adjoining or overlapping forests with the same kinds of trees they are comfortable with. On the other hand, sons often remain in their mother’s range until they are two years old. After that, for the next several years they tend to be nomadic until they are strong enough to defend themselves against other males.
Despite their cuteness, koalas have a reputation of being vicious. Normally, they are docile, the two exceptions to this is during mating season and males attempting to find a home range. Males can be extremely territorial, and they can become violent with another—particularly when establishing territory. Nomadic males are often forced to live less than ideal habitats and settle for food, to which their stomachs are not appropriately adapted to digesting. These koalas are more vulnerable to attacks by predators and resident koalas in unknown territories.
The koala has a few pretors including owls, pythons, and goannas. Dingoes are by far their greatest natural predator, especially for mama’s carrying joeys. Nevertheless, without fail the biggest danger to them is humans. In the early twentieth century, people hunted them for their fur. In 1924, the east coast of Australian exported two million koala pelts primarily to Europe and the States. David Stead, the president of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia rallied against the death of koala. However, his pleas to his own government went unanswered. The U.S. President Herbert Hoover responded to Stead’s appeal and prohibited the importation of koala and wombat skins to the United States and trade eventually died. Even after that, it took the Australian government three more years before it finally banned the export of koalas and their products (Clode, 2023). In Part 2 of koalas, I will discuss in greater detail the threats koalas face at the hand of the Australian government as well as other challenges they face in their fight for survival.