Everyone loves a koala—the cute, furry marsupial that is one of Australia’s most recognizable animals. But is there more to koalas than their adorable and cuddly side, or is it possible that God created them just to be cute?
Hi, My Name is Joey
Let’s face it, most cute animals are mammals (baby ducks are an exception). Add a baby in a pouch, and the cute meter goes off the scale.
Instead of a placenta that most mammal mothers have to nourish their developing babies, koala moms have a pouch. More than just cute, though, the pouch is vital to the babies’ survival. A mother koala gives birth to a very tiny, not fully developed baby, or joey, which climbs up her fur and crawls into her pouch, where it attaches itself to feed on her milk. It’s not ready to face the outside world until six or seven months later, when the baby koala will emerge, furry and adorable. It spends much of the next year riding on its mother’s back or belly, but it will continue to return to the pouch for milk and to sleep until it simply gets too big to fit.
I Chew Lots of Gum
Koalas, like most other living marsupials, are native to Australia. They live in eucalyptus woodlands and depend predominantly on the eucalyptus trees (also called gum trees) for food and shelter. The irony is that gum trees are toxic to all but a very few other animals. God specially designed these creatures to adapt to and survive on this unlikely food source.
God specially designed these creatures to adapt to and survive on this unlikely food source.And they’re picky about their gum leaves, too. Of about 600 species of gum trees, koalas eat fewer than 50. Each individual koala will eat only two or three varieties. And from each tree, they select only particular leaves, using their very sensitive noses to discern which leaves are too toxic to eat.
Poison isn’t the only challenge the koala deals with. Leaves, as you can probably guess, contain very little nutrition, and koalas eat little else. So how do they survive?
The answer is in the liver and the cecum, a pouch at one end of the large intestine. The koala’s liver is specifically designed to break down the toxins in gum leaves. Koalas were also designed with a cecum to digest fiber. Other animals and humans have a cecum (so eat that fiber!), but the koala’s is the longest of any mammal—in fact, it’s up to four times as long as the koala is! The koala’s cecum contains millions of bacteria specially designed to break down the leaf fiber and toxins, and eke out as much nutrition as possible.
So where do all those good bacteria come from? The koala mom passes her specific bacteria along to her joey through a special type of dropping called pap, which the joey eats along with her milk. Yummy. But the joey isn’t disturbed. Without this bacteria, it couldn’t eat the leaves.
Once grown, koalas must eat up to two-and-a-half pounds (one kilogram) per day to get the nutrition they need. To conserve precious energy they spend 18 to 20 hours a day sleeping, and much of the rest of the day they lounge in the trees. Koalas also rarely need to drink, since they usually get sufficient water from the leaves.
Koalas are uniquely designed for arboreal life in other ways. Their front paws have two opposable fingers, like our thumbs, for gripping tree branches. Since they don’t have burrows or dens, their thick fur protects them from the elements. Koalas in the colder south have thicker, longer fur than their northern counterparts.
I Network, Koala Style
While each koala requires a “home range” of about 100 trees, they live in a larger social system consisting of one alpha male—generally the oldest and strongest—and a group of females. Between ages one and two, a young male will leave his mother and roam between other males’ territories in search of a mate and territory. He’ll be listening for a female’s screaming mating call, but if he hears a male’s loud warning bellow, it means he’s trespassing and he’s in for a fight. Males also warn others away by marking their home range with a sticky substance from a scent gland in the middle of their chest.
It’s hard to deny that koalas are adorable. But underneath that cute and cuddly exterior is a unique design that allows life in the unlikeliest environment. So next time you see a koala, and find yourself saying “Aww,” remember to be in awe of the God who created such a wonderful creature.
Did You Know . . .
- While frequently referred to as koala bears, koalas are not related to bears.
- The word koala comes from an Aboriginal word meaning “no drink.”
- Because of their diet of eucalyptus trees, koalas tend to smell like cough drops.
- Female koalas can have one joey per year, although twins have been reported. In the wild they sometimes go two to three years between births.
- Koalas can live up to 20 years in the wild.
- Early European settlers believed the koala was a type of sloth.
- It is illegal in Australia to keep a koala as a pet.
- Although koalas are generally calm and laid back, they are territorial; and their extremely sharp claws can be dangerous to unwary humans who annoy them or encounter them in the wild.
- Koalas’ back feet have fused toes that form a grooming claw.
- People used to believe that koalas get drunk on gum leaves, hence their lazy ways. In fact, they are not drunk, only conserving energy.
- A koala in the south has a different diet than a northern koala because different species of gum trees grow in each region.
- Koalas can store leaves in their cheek pouches to eat later.
Species: P. cinereus
Diet: eucalyptus (gum) leaves
Habitat: eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia