The Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is a thickset
arboreal marsupial herbivore native to Australia, and the only
extant representative of the family Phascolarctidae.
The Koala is found all along the eastern coast of Australia from near Adelaide to the southern part of Cape York Peninsula, and as far into the hinterland as there is enough rainfall to support suitable forests. The Koalas of South Australia were largely exterminated during the early part of the 20th century, but the state has since been repopulated with Victorian stock. The Koala is not found in Tasmania or Western Australia.
Early European settlers to Australia called the Koala the Native
Bear, and the Koala is still sometimes called the Koala Bear,
but it is not a member of the bear family. It is not even a
placental mammal (which most mammals are) - it is a marsupial.
The Koala's scientific name (Phascolarctos cinereus) comes from
the Greek: phaskolos meaning "pouch" and; arktos meaning "bear".
The cinereus epithet is Latin and means "ash-colored".
Although three subspecies have been described, these are arbitrary selections from a cline and are not generally accepted as valid. Following Bergmann's Rule, southern individuals from the cooler climates are larger. A typical Victorian Koala (formerly P. cinereus victor) has longer, thicker fur, is a darker, softer grey, often with chocolate-brown highlights on the back and forearms, and has a more prominently light-colored ventral side and fluffy white ear tufts. Typical and New South Wales Koala weights are 12 kg for males and 8.5 kg for females. In tropical and sub-tropical Queensland, however, the Koala is smaller (at around 6.5 kg for an average male and just over 5 kg for an average female), a lighter, often rather scruffy grey in color, and has shorter, thinner fur. In Queensland the Koala was previously classified as the subspecies P. cinereus adustus, and the intermediate forms in New South Wales as P. cinereus cinereus. The variation from one form to another is continuous and there are substantial differences between individual Koalas in any given region such as hair color. The origins of the koala are unclear, although almost certainly they descended from terrestrial wombat-like animals. Koala fossils are quite rare, but some have been found in northern Australia dating to 20 million years ago. During this time, the northern half of Australia was rainforest. The Koala did not specialize in a diet of eucalypts until the climate cooled and eucalypts forests grew in the place of rainforests. The fossil record indicates that before 50,000 years ago, Giant Koalas inhabited the southern regions of Australia. The Koala fills the same ecological role as the sloth of South America.
Koalas have a slow metabolism and sleep for the most part of the day. The Koala is broadly similar in appearance to the wombats (the closest living relatives), but has a thicker, more luxurious coat, much larger ears, and longer limbs, which are equipped with large, sharp claws to assist with climbing. Weight varies from about 14 kg for a large, southern male, to about 5 kg for a small northern female. Contrary to popular belief, their fur is coarse, not soft and cuddly. Koalas' five digits are arranged with opposable thumbs, providing better gripping ability. The first two digits are position in apposition on the front paws, and the first three digits for the hind paws. The Koala is one of the few mammals (other than primates) that has fingerprints. In fact, koala fingerprints are remarkably similar to human fingerprints; even with an electron microscope, it can be quite difficult to distinguish between the two.
The Koala has an unusually small brain, with about 40% of the cranial cavity being filled with fluid, while the brain itself is like "a pair of shriveled walnut halves on top of the brain stem, in contact neither with each other nor the bones of the skull. It is the only animal on Earth with such a strangely reduced brain."
It is a generally silent animal, but males have a very loud advertising call that can be heard from almost a kilometre away during the breeding season. There is little reliable information about the lifespan of the Koala, but in captivity they have been observed to reach the age of 15 years.
The inverted thumbs on the Koala's back feet help for grip while the koala changes branches or eats with its front hands.
Females reach maturity at 2 to 3 years of age, males at 3 to 4 years. If healthy, a female Koala can produce one young each year for about 12 years. Gestation is 35 days; twins are very rare. Mating normally occurs between December and March, the Southern Hemisphere's summer.
A baby Koala is referred to as a joey and is hairless, blind, and earless. At birth the joey, only a quarter of an inch long, crawls into the downward-facing pouch on the mother's belly (which is closed by a drawstring-like muscle that the mother can tighten at will) and attaches itself to one of the two teats. Koalas retain the rearward-facing pouch of their terrestrial vomaboid ancestors. Young remain hidden in the pouch for about six months, only feeding on milk. During this time they grow ears, eyes, and fur. The joey then begins to explore outside of the pouch. At about this stage it begins to consume small quantities of the semi-liquid form of the motherís excrement called "pap" in order to inoculate its gut with the microbes necessary to digest eucalypt leaves. The baby Koala will remain with the mother for another six months or so, riding on her back, and feeding on both milk and eucalypt leaves until weaning is complete at about 12 months of age. Young females disperse to nearby areas at that time; young males often stay in the mother's home range until they are two or three years old.
The Koala lives almost entirely on eucalypt leaves. This is likely to be an evolutionary adaptation that takes advantage of an otherwise unfilled ecological niche, since eucalypt leaves are low in protein, high in indigestible substances, and contain phenolic and terpene compounds that are toxic to most species. Like wombats and sloths, the Koala has a very low metabolic rate for a mammal and rests motionless for about 19 hours a day, sleeping most of that time. Koalas that are disturbed are known to be violent, their teeth and claws capable of providing considerable injury to humans; special handling requirements are as such applicable. Handling of koalas has been a source of political contention due to these risks, which can also cause harm to the koala as well. Koalas spend about three of their five active hours eating. Feeding occurs at any time of day, but usually at night. An average Koala eats 500 grams of eucalypt leaves each day, chewing them in its powerful jaws to a very fine paste before swallowing. The liver deactivates the toxic components ready for excretion, and the hind gut (especially the caecum) is greatly enlarged to extract the maximum amount of nutrient from the poor quality diet. Much of this is done through bacterial fermentation: when young are being weaned, the mother passes unusually soft faeces, called pap, which is rich in these bacteria, thus passing these essential digestive aids on to her offspring. The Koala will eat the leaves of a wide range of eucalypts, and occasionally even some non-eucalypt species, but it has firm preferences for particular varieties. These preferences vary from one region to another: in the south Manna Gum, Blue Gum and Swamp Gum are favored; Grey Gum and Tallowwood are important in the north, and the ubiquitous River Red Gum of the isolated seasonal swamps and watercourses that meander across the dry inland plains allows the Koala to exist in surprisingly arid areas. Many factors determine which of the 800 species of eucalypt trees the Koala eats. Among trees of their favorite species, however, the major factor that determines which individual trees the Koala chooses is the concentration of a group of phenolic toxins called formylated phloroglucinol compounds.
This Koala Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub