17 Nov 2010

Please don’t call me a ‘koala bear’!

1 Comment Typically Aussie

I like koalas I think you might now that by now. I just think they’re fascinating animals and I wanted to learn more about them. So I did what I always do when I’m curious – I googled it! Therefore I’m dedicating a whole entire blog posts to koalas and the facts I found out about them.

Why are they called koala bears?
Koalas are not really bears at all, although their Latin scientific name, Phascolarctos cinereus, means ‘ash colored pouched bear’. A koala does look somewhat like a bear but it is really quite different. It is actually a marsupial (pungdjur in Swedish) like kangaroos, possums and wombats – the female koala carries her young in a pouch on her belly.

What does the koala name come from?
‘Koala’ is thought to have meant ‘no drink’ in one of the Aboriginal languages. Koalas don’t need to drink very often because they get most of the moisture they need from eucalyptus leaves. However, they can drink from waterholes and creeks etc if necessary, such as in times of drought when the eucalyptus leaves contain less moisture than normal.

Where do koalas live?
Koalas are found down the east coast of mainland Australia – in the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Koalas live in dry eucalyptus forests where they can find their prefered leaves.

How many koalas remain?
The Australian Koala Foundation’s research indicates that the koala is in trouble and that extinctions of local populations have already occurred. In contrast to the millions of koalas which were thought to be present at the time of European settlement, it’s believed that there could be less than 80 000 remaining in the wild today, possibly as few as 43 000. If this rate of decline continues the koala is at risk of extinction.

Can I keep a koala as a pet?
As with most native Australian animals, the koala cannot legally be kept as a pet in Australia or anywhere else. The only people who are permitted to keep koalas are wildlife carers and, occasionally, research scientists. These individuals are issued with special permits to care for koalas, but have to return them to the wild when they are either well enough or, in the case of joeys, old enough.

Are the koalas as cuddly and friendly as they look?
Koalas are not known for being particularly friendly and when disturbed they’re known to be violent, their teeth and claws capable of causing considerable injury to humans.

How big is a koala?
Though there is only one species of koala there are said to be 2-3 different sub spieces with a bit different physical characteristics. Koalas in the south of Australia are considerably larger and have thicker, often browner fur than those in the north. These are likely to be adaptations to the colder winters in the south of the country.

Southern koalas
Length – average 78.2 cm
Weight – average 12 kg
Length – average 71.6 cm
Weight – average 8.5 kg

Northern koalas
Length – average 70.5 cm
Weight – average 6.5 kg
Length – average 68.7 cm
Weight – average 5.1 kg

How old can a koala get?
In the wild in undamaged habitat, the average life span of a koala is about 10 years. However, where habitat is damaged, such as in suburban areas, they may only live for a few months or years because of the dangers from cars and dogs. Males tend to have a shorter life span than females because of the stresses of fights during the breeding season and the fact that they tend to move around more than females in search of mates, thus putting them in increased danger from dogs and cars.

Because of the stresses associated with living in the wild, koalas in the wild can have a considerably shorter life span than koalas in zoos. Koalas in zoos and wildlife parks don’t have to travel any distance for food, they don’t have to face the same dangers as wild koalas and they get regular expert veterinary attention. The oldest zoo koala that we know about was a female who lived to 23 years old at Lone Pine Sanctuary in Queensland. Her name was Sarah and she is in the Guiness Book of Records as the oldest known koala.

How big is a koalas brain?
Although the koala’s head is large in proportion to its body it holds a remarkably small brain. The brain only fills about 60% of the cranial cavity, the rest is fluid. It’s been suggested that a smaller brain uses less energy and that this could be an adaptation to allow the koala to survive on its low energy diet.

What do koalas eat?
The koala is a fussy eater, only eating from several different species of eucalyptus trees (gum trees) and very occasionally from some other trees. They will eat the leaves, shoots, fruits, flowers and even at times the bark from young branches.

Koala bears eat about 450-680g of leaves a day, that’s about 10% of their body weight. The koala can usually get all the nutrients and moisture it needs from the oil in the gum leaves and the rain and dew which collects on them. Gum leaves are low in nutrition and contain certain chemicals which are toxic to most other animals. Koalas have special bacteria in their guts which enable them to digest these leaves.

Sometimes koalas will eat soil which can provide it with essential minerals such as calcium. Only occasionally will a koala drink from a waterhole or other water source.

Does the koala get high on eucalyptus leaves?
There is a common misconception that koalas get ‘drugged out’ or ‘high’ on eucalyptus leaves and that’s why they sleep a lot. This myth possibly arose as a way of explaining why koalas sleep for up to 20 hours a day. They need more sleep than most animals because eucalyptus leaves contain toxins and are very low in nutrition and high in fibrous matter so they take a large amount of energy to digest. Sleeping for long periods is a strategy for conserving energy.

What does a koala do all day?
A koala spends most of its life in trees, usually perched in the fork of a eucalyptus tree. They spend about 80% of their day sleeping, 10% eating and the remaining 10% just sitting.

It has no tail like a monkey to help it in balancing in trees but it does have long arms and strong claws with two thumbs on each front paw to enable it to get a secure grip.

Koalas may jump from one branch to another or from one tree to another but usually a koala will descend bottom first down a tree to cross to another tree on the ground.

How much does a koala sleep?
Because eucalyptus leaves are not extremely nutritious nor full of energy, koalas spend about 16 to 20 hours per day resting unmoving in the fork of a tree. The majority of that time is spent sleeping.

When is cold, wet or windy, a koala will sleep curled up in a ball. When it is hot or humid a koala will sleep all sprawled out with arms and legs hanging.

What does a koala sound like?
When a koala is stressed, it may make a sound like a baby wailing. Throughout the year, but especially during the mating season, September through to February (that’s Australia’s Spring-Summer), the male will make loud bellows and pig-like grunts. This may be made in anger or to attract the females.

Did you know this about baby koalas?

  • Baby koalas are called joeys.
  • A newborn koala is about the 2.5 cm long (the size of a jellybean), hairless, blind and weighs about 0.5 grams.
  • The joey will stay in its mother’s pouch, attached to the teat drinking milk, 3 to 4 months after it’s born.
  • Joeys eat their mother’s pap (a special type of soft, runny poo) to give them the bacteria to help them digest eucalyptus leaves later.
  • The joey will leave its mother’s pouch for the first time when it’s between 6 and 7 months old and after a couple of weeks it spends the majority of its time outside the pouch riding on his mother’s back. It will continue to ride on it’s mother’s back until it’s about 1 year old and then weighs about 2 kg.
  • It is thought that there is a 1 in 10 000 chance of twins being born. If twins are born, it is likely that only one will survive to maturity since, as they grow, there is not really enough room in the pouch for two young koalas.

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One Response to “Please don’t call me a ‘koala bear’!”

  1. Reply Adaline says:

    Well i am writing a report on koalas for extra credit, and i was thinking that you could do something that might intrest poeple who see this article. You could write about their life as a marsupial.

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