In the outback of Australia, you can find a lot of unique animals. High up in the trees, you may spot the fuzzy, adorable, and iconic koala wedged into the fork of a tree. Some people call them koala bears, but they are not a part of the bear family. In fact, there are no other creatures on the earth quite like the koala.
Read on to find out some fun facts about these spectacular mammals and how humans can help to preserve this vulnerable species.
Koalas are Marsupials
Koalas are nocturnal marsupials. A marsupial, like the numbat or the wombat, is a type of mammal that gives birth to their young prematurely. This is done to conserve energy, as pregnancy consumes a lot of the animal’s resources. Then, the young further develop in a pouch.
For Koalas, males become sexually mature at 3-4 years old, and females at 2 years old. Females generally give birth once a year. The gestation period for a koala is about 35 days. They usually only give birth to one baby, called a joey, but they can rarely have twins, as well.
Joeys remain in their moms’ pouches for 6 months before emerging. Then, they will ride on their mom’s back for the next 6 months. At one year old, the joey will be weaned and claim their territory.
Male koalas don’t live as long as females, only averaging around 10-12 years in the wild. Female koalas can live up to 18 years and continue to breed throughout this time.
Koalas are Native to Australia
These cute and cuddly-looking animals can only be found in southeastern and eastern Australia. They live in Eucalyptus forests. They sleep, eat, and live in the crooks of branches. However, they can travel on the ground to get from tree to tree.
Koalas use trees to stay comfortable in all kinds of weather. If the weather is hot, koalas seek out lower branches that are shadier to cool them down. On cold days, they seek out the tops of trees where the dappled sun can warm them.
Trees are also a great place to hide from predators. Dingoes, dogs, and large owls occasionally eat koalas, but their tree home keeps them safe from most dangers.
Koalas Only Eat Eucalyptus Leaves
Koalas are herbivores. Their primary food source is the Eucalyptus leaf, although they may occasionally eat the leaves of other plants. Eucalyptus leaves are incredibly toxic and are often fatal when consumed by most animals.
However, the Koala has a unique digestive system that tackles the tannins and toxins inside these leaves.
A koala’s liver produces special enzymes to break down toxins. Symbiotic gut bacteria in the intestines further strip the food of its poisonous nature. So, it is no surprise that digestion takes a lot of time and energy for the koala. So, you will often see koalas resting in trees even during their active periods.
Koalas eat around 500 grams of Eucalyptus leaves a day. Their Aboriginal name means “no drink” because the koalas rarely drink water. They get most of their water from the leaves they eat.
But their singular diet has a couple of consequences. One, they are very limited on how many koalas one tree of leaves can support. Two, their toxic buffet takes a lot of energy to digest, making them sluggish animals.
Koalas Have Opposable Thumbs
These tree climbers are built for forest dwellings. They have strong arms and powerful legs that help them to ascend trees. But their opposable thumbs are one of their most curious features.
In total, koalas have 5 digits on their front paws. They have two thumbs on their front paws that can move differently from their other fingers. They used to grip trees. They can even climb smooth-barked trees with these strong thumbs.
Their back paws look different from their fore paws. They have a single, clawless thumb, and the 2nd and 3rd fingers are fused. The fused digits make a great grooming claw to keep fur from getting matted and weed out pests.
Koalas Are a Vulnerable Species
Koalas are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Around 300,000 mature koalas are living in the outback, but with bushfires raging through the Australian forests due to climate change, the koala’s homes are becoming threatened. Diseases brought on by stress, such as Chlamydia, also reduce their numbers.
They were also killed for their coats between 1919-24, greatly reducing their numbers.
This cuddly creature is also an incredibly picky eater. Of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus trees, Koalas only eat 2 or 3 of these species. Each of these trees can only support so many koalas. With dwindling forests, this makes the koala’s feeding source scarcer.
This marsupial is the only one of its kind. There are no other species of koala in the world. So, we need to work hard to aid in conservation efforts to preserve these beautiful creatures.
Several organizations in Australia are working to conserve and study the koala. Thorough research helps scientists to better understand and help build programs to better preserve this species.
Environmental changes are also needed to ensure the koala’s survival, but if people band together for better climate control and support zoos with conservation programs, we can help make a difference to this vulnerable species.