Cute Clandestine Climber

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Hiding in Indonesia’s tropical forests is one of the cutest—and most creatively designed—creatures on the planet.

The early morning sunlight filters through the windows of our rough-hewn tribal house in Papua, Indonesia. As our son Kian cooks a pot of oatmeal and warms himself by the stove’s flame, the blanket on the couch quivers. Slowly, a little pink nose pokes out, twitches, and sniffs the air. It’s Newt, our loyal (and hungry) pet spotted cuscus.

Not Couscous

She’s a cutie, but what is a cuscus? (Not the Mediterranean dish—that’s spelled couscous, but it sounds the same.) Cuscuses are good-natured marsupials that roam the lush jungles in northern Australia and the Southeast Asian islands (Sulawesi, the Moluccas, and New Guinea). They’re also adorable. If they didn’t live so far off the beaten path, every child would want one of these gentle fur balls—with their big, round eyes and curlicue tails—as a pet. At least that’s what our family thinks!

Marsupials are mammals, many of which are designed with a unique pouch to rear their young. Cuscuses are Australasian possums. They look and act a lot like opossums in the Americas (except cuscuses are cuter), and they fill the same role in the wild. Cuscuses are gentle, quiet, odorless (well, most of them anyway), and quickly potty trained. That makes them perfect human companions. This peaceable companionship may have been one thing the Creator had in mind when He made them. But after Adam’s sin brought deadly dangers into the world, they had to develop specific strategies to thrive.

Living Above It All

Unlike the American opossum, which can play dead to confuse predators, cuscuses scratch and bite to defend themselves. That’s not always effective. So most live in the trees. This offers some protection from wild dogs, snakes, monitor lizards, birds of prey, and humans. Furthermore, most cuscuses are active at night, when most would-be bad guys are sleeping—another wise strategy from the Creator for surviving in the jungle.

Apart from a safe home and secretive habits, cuscuses do well (like opossums) because they aren’t picky eaters. Most eat a wide variety of plants, insects, bird eggs, and small animals. That frees them to wander around, spreading far and wide in search of food. Our pet, Newt, has broadened her palate to include all manner of human food—especially oatmeal!

Designed to Climb

When we watch Newt casually amble up the ladder to our loft and then into the rafters, her skill reminds us how well God designed her feet and prehensile tail for climbing. Unlike American opossums, cuscuses don’t hang by their tails. Instead, they use them as an extra hand to grab onto branches and limbs as they climb. I have scrambled up more than one jungle tree, and trust me, I could have used an extra hand! God knew what He was doing when he designed this tree-dwelling fur ball.

On the cuscuses’ hind feet is another aid in grabbing limbs and climbing—an opposable thumb. These thumbs don’t have nails like ours, but otherwise, they look just like our thumbs and work pretty much the same way. It is neat to see how the Creator used the same great design on such different creatures. The next time you grip a glass of water or a hammer, remember the humble cuscus has a good thumb, too. We didn’t inherit it from each other, but God gave us a similar special design to meet our different needs.

An Audience of One

Ever since God called our family to share the gospel with the tribal people of Indonesia, we have lived in this remote jungle. So we get to see lots of things most people never see, including cuscuses in their natural environment. Few, if any, people ever cross their paths. When a lone human does wander into their domain, they quietly peer down from their lofty perches, unconcerned and usually unnoticed. So who gets to enjoy these silent tenants of the deep forest?

Well, they have an ever-present audience—their Creator! We know that, after finishing His work of creation, the Lord looked on all He had made and said, “It is very good!” Today, although marred by sin, creation is still good and praises Him. The more we seek to understand nature, the more it undeniably points us toward the Creator. As we push deeper into the remotest places of the earth, we are constantly delighted by unexpected evidences of His hand at work. Studying God’s creatures, from the showiest peacock to the unpretentious cuscus, should lead us to praise the one whose wisdom created it all!

Did You Know

Hunters in our jungle can easily track cuscuses because they are creatures of habit. They like to poop in the same place, at the same time, every day! If a hunter comes across a pile of cuscus poop, he just has to wait until dusk when the unsuspecting little guy comes out to do his business. Then . . . it’s roasted cuscus (with couscous, maybe) for dinner!

Cuscus

illustration by Dave Mottram

A mother cuscus can bear up to three young at a time but usually has one or two. They are born in just 13 days and weigh no more than 1 gram (about as much as a paperclip) at birth. They stay in the mother’s pouch for about 6 months—much like a baby kangaroo.

Unlike American opossums, cuscuses don’t hang by their tails. Instead, they use them as an extra hand to grab onto branches and limbs as they climb.

Cuscus

illustration by Dave Mottram

Mike Wild is a missionary to tribal people in the jungles of Asia Pacific. He and his wife serve the people and are working to translate the Bible into their language. His children share the excitement of missionary life in a popular DVD series The Wild Brothers.

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