Scientific Name: Phascolarctos cinereus adustus
Fortunately for koalas, they are equipped with a small nub of thick, fur-covered gristle called a vestigial tail. The tail works as a seat cushion, allowing them to snooze comfortably while in a tree.
Not Really a Bear at All
Even though the koala is often referred to as a bear because of its stout body, round tufted ears, and dark nose, it belongs to the marsupial family, which includes kangaroos and opossums. Marsupials are distinguished from other mammals by a pouch that aids in the rearing of their offspring.
Koalas breed during Australia’s spring and summer seasons that run from October through May. The gestation period is 35 days, after which the mother gives birth to a single offspring merely ¾ of an inch long that climbs from the cloaca into a rear-facing pouch and attaches to one of the mother’s two teats, where it will remain for six months. At seven months, the joey is slowly weaned from milk to eucalyptus by feeding on partially digested leaves in the form of pap as they leave the mother’s pouch. By the time the joey is a year old, it leaves the safety of its mother’s pouch and will reach sexual maturity by the age of two, with a typical lifespan of up to 20 years.
At one time, koalas faced the threat of extinction by fur hunters. Thankfully, in the late 1920’s the Australian government instated a nationwide ban on the killing of these docile marsupials. Listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the koala population still faces obstacles that are diminishing their numbers. Over-browsed forests, brushfires, drought, infection, disease, urban encroachment, and even motorists threaten the koala population.
Today, koala populations are confined to a handful of the remaining eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia, from northern Queensland to southern Australia. Don’t let the koala’s cuddly looks fool you; they have powerful legs and forefeet that help them scale the eucalyptus trees in which they live.
Koalas may be small in size, but they eat approximately two and a half to three lbs. of foliage daily! They mainly munch on the young leaves, shoots, bark, and seedpods of the eucalyptus species that are specific to their habitat. Even though their diet is limited to strictly eucalyptus, koalas are still very picky eaters. They rely on their sight and outstanding sense of smell to help them select the highest quality foliage available. These eucalyptus connoisseurs are not only able to balance their nutrient intake, but can also detect high concentrations of toxins in the leaves.
The koala’s body is adapted for a tree-dwelling lifestyle. Their extremely sharp claws, vice-like grip, and ridged foot pads allow them to scale 100 ft. tree tops and move agilely across flimsy branches. Their second and third toes are fused together and topped with claws that separate at the tips. The fused digits resemble a two-toothed comb, which they use to groom and smooth their fur. Their gray fur may appear soft, but is actually densely packed and wooly in order to repel water and provide insulation.