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Mammal: The Koala

Phascolarctos cinereus

Mammal: The Koala

Malaika Costello-Dougherty
16 Snaps

The koala sleeps all day, waking from a series of naps to munch on eucalyptus leaves. Aboriginal Australians thought the koala was drunk because of the way it rocks on the tree branch, reclining way back and gulping for air. Today many say that the koala is permanently stoned.

In fact the koala has a bad diet of only eucalyptus leaves—poisonous to most animals and low in nutrition— and sleeps to conserve energy, appearing drowsy because of a slow metabolism. Koala is the aboriginal word for “no drink” because the eucalyptus trees provide sufficient hydration for the wooly animal.

Koalas live in eastern Australia; to spot them in the wild, one can go to Magnetic Island off the coast of Queensland. When passing another hiker on the Forts trail (the best koala-spotting hike), the etiquette is to offer a suggestion of where a koala can be found and hope the other hiker will reciprocate.

You may be hiking on the Forts trail and one member of a group of English girls in bikini tops will advise: “Down trail number nine there’s a koala. It’s gorgeous.”

And down trail number nine, nestled in a canopy of green with the sun catching its gray fur, you may find a sleeping koala. It will hold on to the branch with a long hind leg, its arm hanging down, its fingers splayed. The face appears dignified with a dominant black nose, soft pink chin and ears that point out like a teddy bear.

When it wakes to scratch itself with those impossibly long black nails, the koala languidly moves while the wind combs through the eucalyptus branches.

Then the koala down trail number nine pushes back, turns around and climbs up the branch—paw over paw. The little grey marsupial grabs out and pulls back a branch full of leaves. It nibbles and sucks at the eucalyptus— perched with its round butt on the thin white branch.

The seemingly gentle koala makes fearsome grunts and growls to communicate and is actually a pretty vicious animal. A rescue team had to be sent to an island where koalas overbred and were ripping each other apart with those grasping black claws.

Koala sex also looks pretty kinky in a violent kind of way. The reclusive koala mates in the evening with other members of its colony (a group of koalas whose home ranges fit together like a puzzle). The dominant male will prowl his area during the breeding season, fighting with the other males and impregnating the females.

After conception, the baby koala (known as a joey) emerges in thirty-five days and looks like a pink tail climbing up its mother’s soft white belly. The joey navigates to the mother’s nipple and the safety of her pouch. The pouch makes the koala a marsupial (like the kangaroo) and not a bear.

As the joey grows, the mother sleeps in a circular embrace with her baby, making humming and grunting sounds. The mother feeds with the joey riding on her back, grabbing at leaves. The baby stays with the mother until a new pink joey emerges, and then the young koala must find its own home range.

At the Billabong Sanctuary in Townsville, you can hold a koala. Clasp your hands under its butt and feel the calm koala pressed against you with its cologne of powerful eucalyptus.

 


 

Koalas are found in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Koalas are very picky eaters and will not eat most of the 600 types of eucalyptus in Australia. Sometimes the koala will eat wattle or tea tree for a change. The koala eats between two-hundred and five-hundred grams of leaves a day. On the hind paw there is no big toe and two toes are fused together to create a grooming claw. The koala weighs between six and fourteen kilograms. When afraid, the koala will make a cry like a baby screaming and shake. The average females lifetime is twelve years and she will have five or six babies. The mother feeds the baby from twenty-two to thirty weeks with a special kind of dropping, known as pap, that passes on microorganisms essential for digesting eucalyptus.

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