(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
The koala is a small pale grey-brown marsupial native to Australia which spends most of its life sitting in the fork of a gum tree, asleep. It isn’t actually a member of the bear family, but is often referred to as a koala bear as it resembles a small bear or child’s teddy bear. There are thought to be fewer than 100,000 koalas living mainly in eastern and southern Australia, down from an estimated 10 million or more before European settlement.
The name koala is from the Aboriginal word “gula”, which became “koolah” and then “koala”. It is sometimes thought that the word means “no drink” as koalas rarely drink water but get their moisture from the eucalyptus leaves which comprise most of its diet, but the meaning is disputed. They are popular tourist attractions at zoos, where visitors line up for a photograph with a koala, for example, at Lone Pine Sanctuary, Brisbane.
Koalas live where eucalyptus trees are found. Their habitat ranges from coastal and inland forests to islands off the coast and inland wooded areas. They are social animals and each group has its own territory. If a koala dies, other koalas won’t enter its territory for a year.
To prosper, a group needs to have a forest area large enough to support its food requirements and breeding cycle as well as providing shelter. Koalas only eat a few dozen varieties of Australia’s 600 eucalyptus species and prefer about ten. Most species are poisonous, and their strong sense of smell lets them know which species are okay to eat. Occasionally, they will eat wattle and tea tree leaves. They eat half to one pound of leaves a day. Their high fiber, low-nutrition diet has given them a slow metabolism rate and they sleep 16-18 hours a day. They are most active at night. A permit is needed to keep a koala as a pet.
The koala has adapted well to its life spent in trees. Its muscular body and limbs, and strong paws with sharp claws, allow it to climb tree trunks and branches in such an easy way it almost looks like it’s walking up the tree. On the ground, they look quite awkward and walk or run with a kind of a hobble.
A koala’s thick fur is waterproof and also provides insulation against temperature extremes. Southern male koalas weigh 20-30 pounds while females weigh 14-24 pounds, although northern koalas weigh less. Apart from their size difference, the way to tell a male from a female is that the male has a brown scent gland on its chest.
One of the more extraordinary traits of koalas is their ability to communicate with each other. A large male will give a deep grunt or bellow to indicate its position in the hierarchy. Males will grunt at each other to determine their position, with the loudest, deepest grunt winning the day. This saves fighting, which wastes valuable energy, something koalas don’t have in abundance, although they do sometimes resort to fighting. A male’s bellow can be heard up to half a mile away during the breeding season. Females are quieter but will sometimes grunt when angry or at mating time. A mother and baby will “talk” to each other using soft muttering, humming and squeaking noises. Any koala can give a loud cry or scream if frightened or stressed.
Koalas’ young are immature at birth and continue to develop in the female’s pouch. Breeding is in the southern summer months of September to March. Females have babies from age three or four, and have one joey at a time, although not every year. During its 12 year lifespan, a female will have five or six joeys. Koalas have a very short gestation period of about five weeks.
When born, a koala is less than an inch long, weighs perhaps a thirtieth of an ounce, and is furless. It could be mistaken for a pink jellybean. Somehow, a joey makes its way unaided to the pouch, where there are two teats. The pouch acts like a second womb and the joey doesn’t leave it for six months. After about five months, it will open its eyes and peer out. At age 5-7 months, it eats “pap”, a form of faeces that acts as a transitional food between milk and eucalyptus leaves. At seven months, a joey will leave the pouch and eat leaves but will ride on its mother’s back
Koalas almost became extinct in the early twentieth century and still face many threats. Four-fifths of Australia’s eucalyptus forests have been cut down and most of those that remain are on private land and not protected. Land clearing and human settlement has resulted in habitat loss leading to overcrowding and disease.
They also face death and injury from introduced animals such as dogs and cats, from traffic, bushfires (many of which are deliberately lit) and pesticides. An estimated 4000 koalas are killed by motor vehicles and dogs each year.
In Queensland, the koala is listed as “vulnerable” except in the south-east where it is “common”; in New South Wales it is mainly “vulnerable”; in Victoria the population is “large and thriving”; and in South Australia it is “rare”, except on Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast where the word “plague” has been used to describe numbers.
Elections have been won and lost over koalas. In Queensland in 1995, the state government wanted to build a second freeway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The proposed road went through koala habitat and five government seats. Residents protested and the government lost all five seats, giving power to the opposition by one seat after an independent member agreed to support it. The “koala highway” was scrapped and the existing highway widened.
Koalas are now a protected species, with koala preservation societies and branches around the country. A koala hospital has been set up at Port Macquarie, New South Wales, to care for sick and injured koalas. It has a treatment room, intensive care unit, and 24 hour rescue and treatment facility. The future is looking a little brighter for this unique Australian animal.