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Koala Fact File

Phascolarctos cinereus

Credit: The Animal Facts

Weight

4-13kg

(9-29lbs)

Length

60-85cm

(2-3ft)

Lifespan

Wild 13 years

Captive 18 years

Diet

Herbivores

Eucalyptus leaves

Conservation Status

IUCN

Vulnerable

Australia's Strangest Animal!

The koala is one of the few animals on Earth which seems to actively resist surviving. These animals have adapted to feed exclusively on eucalyptus leaves which are filled with toxins that the koala must work hard to digest.


As a result of the work needed to digest their food they will spend much of their time resting and may spend up to 20 hours each day sleeping.


These animals are marsupials and as a result they will give birth to a live young which is initially raised in a pouch located on their stomach. Here it develops till it is large enough to sit on their back.


They are threatened across their range with significant declines in their population being driven by habitat loss and fires.


Read on to learn more about these magnificent mammals.

Appearance

What does the Koala look like?

The koalas shape is similar to the wombat which is its closest living relative, but the koala has longer limbs.

They have soft wool-like grey fur with patches of white on their stomach, chest and chin and a fringe of white around their ears. They have a round head with a large black nose. They have a small tail that is mostly hidden by their fur.

Koalas have large sharp claws which help them in climbing trees. They have five digits on each paw, the front paws have two opposable thumbs and three fingers. Two toes on the back paws are joined together which forms a “grooming tool” which the koala uses to comb their fur and get rid of ticks. The koala is one of the few mammals that has a fingerprint similar to a human fingerprint.

The length of a koala can be between 60 and 85cm (2 to 3 ft) with their weight being about 4 to 8.5 kgs (9-19 pounds) for a northern koala and 7 to 13 kgs (15-29 pounds) for a southern koala.

Males can be distinguished from females through the presence of a large brown gland on the chest which is rubbed on branches to mark them with their scent. This serves to warn other koalas of their presence. They are also significantly larger than the females.

Adaptations

How does the Koala survive in its habitat?


The koala is able to eat the eucalyptus leaves that they exclusively feed on due to their enlarged cecum. In humans this organ measures just 6.25cm (2.5in) long while in koalas it can reach up to 200cm (80in) long. Held within this pouch is the bacteria which help to break down the toxic cells.

Koalas can vary in size and colour depending on where they live in Australia. Koalas that live in the southern areas are larger and have thicker grey fur while the ones that live in the northern areas are smaller and have brown fur.

This variation is size and fur thickness across the country is in response to the differing climates. In the South the smaller animals live in colder areas and have thicker fur in response with the smaller body also being easier to keep warm.

Each koala has a unique fingerprint similar to that of humans.

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Diet

What does the Koala eat?

Koalas are herbivores (plant eaters) but they only eat eucalyptus leaves. Luckily there are over 600 kinds of eucalyptus trees and each one has leaves that look and taste different so they do get some variety.

Even though there are so many different types of eucalyptus leaves koalas prefer the leaves of only a small proportion of them.

Koalas eat quite a lot each day with each koala eating between 454 and 680 g (1 to 1.5 pounds) of leaves.

Koalas have a special digestive system that allows them to break down the toxic oils in the eucalyptus leaves that are poisonous to most animals. The eucalyptus leaves don’t provide the koala with many calories or much energy but they have a slow metabolism and they spend about a lot of time sitting around or sleeping.

Despite the numerous adaptations which help them to digest the leaves they still only absorb roughly 25% of the food they consume.

They have been seen to swallow soil, bark or gravel to help with their digestion.

Koalas do not drink much water as they get most of the moisture they need from the leaves that they eat.

Learn more about the Koala in this video from The Rookeepers on YouTube

Range

Where do you find the Koala?

Australia is the native home of the koala where they live in the east of the country throughout the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

This species has been introduced to a range of areas. These include a large population which has been established through the Adelaide Hills region in South Australia.

A number of populations have also been formed on islands including Kangaroo, French, Phillip and Magnetic Islands.

Habitat

Where can the Koala survive?

Their habitats are scrubland eucalyptus forests and low woodlands.

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)

Credit: The Animal Facts

Reproduction

How does the Koala produce its young?

Koalas breed once a year between December and March and after a 35 day gestation period they will give birth to one joey (twins are very rare).

At birth the joey is very small, about the size of a large jelly bean, and weighs between 0.4 and 1g (.015 to .035 ounces). When the joey is born they can’t see or hear but they are quite strong.

They will crawl from the birth canal over their mothers fur and into the downward facing pouch where they will attach themselves to one of the two teats in there. The mother holds the baby in the pouch by tightening the muscles at the top of the pouch so the joey will not fall out. The joey will stay in the pouch for the next six months drinking its mothers milk, and during this time they will grow ears, eyes and fur.

After six months the joey will start to venture out of the pouch although it may climb back in from time to time to sleep or hide. At this time they also starting eating “pap” which the mother produces, it is high in micro-organisms and helps to get the joeys stomach ready to be able to digest eucalyptus leaves.

The joey will stay with its mother for another six months usually riding on her back before they become independent at about 12 months of age.

Sexual maturity is reached by two years old.

Behavior

What does the Koala do during its day?

Koalas are mostly nocturnal and spend most of their day sleeping, usually about 18 – 20 hours. They spend most of their time sleeping in a fork of a tree. When they want to move between trees they will do it either by leaping from tree to tree or by walking on the ground for longer distances. When they are on the ground they are quite slow moving.

Koalas are very territorial and live within breeding groups, each koala in the group has its own home trees in a range. The size of each koalas range depends on its sex, age and position within the group, koalas usually only visit each others home trees to breed.

Koalas are not normally loud animals but can communicate with sounds like growls, bellows and grunts. The time when they are at their loudest is when the males are making their mating call during the breeding season.

Their calls travel well through the forest and are used to show their receptiveness to mating or warn off rivals.

When koalas meet in the wild they will touch noses to greet each other.

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)

Credit: The Animal Facts

Predators and Threats

What stops the Koala from surviving and thriving?

Introduced species such as dogs and foxes will attack koalas when they come to the ground.

Koalas are considered threatened across their range and reports regularly list the species as functionally extinct. While this is likely overstating their current risk the species is subject to a range of threats which are significantly impacting on their population.


Estimates place the full population in Australia at below half a million individuals.


One of the most prominent threats to the koalas has been natural disasters, primarily fires.


Other factors in their decline are habitat loss and destruction with large portions of their habitat being developed for housing. Disease is also causing large issues for the population with chlamydia being widespread in their populations. This disease causes blindness and infertility in koalas.


In the past a major factor in their decline was hunting for their fur but this practice has now been discontinued and they are protected by law across their range.

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Quick facts

Koalas are often referred to as koala bears due to their similar appearance to teddy bears, but they are not bears they are marsupials.

Koalas sometimes eat a bit of dirt to help them be able to digest their eucalyptus leaves.

Baby koalas are known as joeys and they do not develop all of their fur until they have been in their mothers pouch for about six months.

Koalas get their name from the aboriginal word for “no drink”

The scientific name of the koala, “Phascolarctos cinereus” means “ash coloured bear.”

It is estimated that in 1998 alone $1 billion was generated through koala related items and tourism in Australia.

They are the only surviving member in their family.

The record for the oldest living koala was set by a female known as 'Sarah' who passed away at the age of 23 at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)

Credit: The Animal Facts

References

Woinarski, J. & Burbidge, A.A. 2020. Phascolarctos cinereus (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T16892A166496779. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-1.RLTS.T16892A166496779.en. Accessed on 13 April 2022.

Slater, P. and Parish, S., 2016. First Field Guide To Australian Mammals. 1st ed. New South Wales: Pascal Press.

Jackson, T. and Chinery, M., 2012. The illustrated encyclopedia of animals of the world. London: Southwater.

Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK     

Ambrose, J., 2015. Wildlife Of The World. 1st ed. London: Dorling Kindersley

Howard, J., 2019. Encyclopedia of animals. London: Quatro Publishing.

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