Animal of the Month
February 2020
Name: Koala

Class: Mammalia
Order: Diprotondtia
Family: Phascolarctidae
Genus: Phascoloarctos
Species: P. cinereus

Size: 22.5-33.5 inches tall.
Weight: 20 lbs.

Characteristics: Small pudgy body covered in fur, round fluffy ears, small eyes, large nose, four legs with five clawed digits on each hand - two of which are opposable thumbs - and one opposable non-clawed digit on each foot, with two fused toes.
Color(s): Gray body, white bellies, black nose and pink chin.
Behavior: Arboreal, mostly nocturnal, spends 90% of its time sleeping.
Preferred Habitat: Arboreal, mostly nocturnal, spends 90% of its time sleeping.
Range: Eastern Australia.
Almost exclusively eucalyptus leaves.
Lifespan: 10-15 years in the wild, about 18 years in captivity.

Status: Vulnerable

Australia is home to many famous critters like kangaroos, saltwater crocodiles and platypuses. But perhaps the most iconic of them all is none other than the adorable koala bear! Koalas - which are marsupials, not bears-are found in eucalypt forests in eastern Australia.

Koalas spend almost their entire lives in the trees. They are adapted to living in the branches with special hands and feet. Each hand has five digits with two opposable thumbs, and each foot has an opposable non-clawed thumb with two fused toes. This bizarre anatomy allows koalas to cling to trees with ease! Usually quiet, occasionally a koala will "bellow", or make a series of loud burping noises to communicate with others of its kind.

Koalas' favorite food is the leaves of eucalyptus trees. These leaves are high in fiber and contain toxins that are poisonous to most animals. Koalas however have a special organ that allows them to process the toxins safely. Koalas eat so many eucalyptus leaves that they even smell like eucalyptus cough drops! Eucalyptus leaves are not just a food supply for koalas; they are also the koala's main source of water. Of the 300 eucalypt tree species that grow in Australia, koalas only eat from about thirty of them. This diet however is low in nutrients, so koalas spend up to 22 hours a day sleeping to conserve energy, rivaling the sloth in laziness!

Koalas are marsupials, meaning they give birth to live babies and then carry them in a pouch. Koalas mate between August and February. Males will bellow more often to attract females. Females will begin to reproduce at about three or four years old. Females give birth every one-to-three years, depending on conditions. The mother carries her baby for only 35 days before giving birth. Like kangaroos, a baby koala is called a joey. Newborn joeys are only about two centimeters long and have no fur, eyesight or ears! The joey will climb into its mother's pouch and begin to nurse immediately. After twenty-two weeks the joey's eyes will open and it will peep out of the pouch. For up to thirty weeks the mother will create a substance called pap, which the baby eats in addition to milk. Pap is a runny liquid that helps the joey transition from milk to eucalyptus leaves. As time passes, the joey will venture from the pouch and eat eucalyptus leaves. The mother will likely give birth to another joey, and when the newborn emerges from the pouch, the older joey will go out on its own.

Koalas are in serious trouble. By far their largest threat is deforestation. Large swathes of koala habitat are regularly cleared away for agriculture, mining and other human activities. The Australian bushfires that began in 2019 are also responsible for devastating huge areas of habitat for millions of animals, including koalas. Koalas are further impacted by cars and encounters with dogs.

Koalas are classed as vulnerable by the IUCN. On the national level, Australia considers koalas to be vulnerable, though many activists believe that koalas should be reclassified as critically endangered. Currently there is no major legislation in Australia that protects koalas or koala habitat, but there are many organizations working furiously to save them. The Australian Koala Foundation is campaigning for the Koala Protection Act, and the government of New South Wales has devised a strategic program to conserve koalas. Beloved by millions around the world, it is safe to say that the koala has a fighting chance.

To learn more about these cuddly "bears" and how to protect them, look up these fantastic organizations!

Australian Koala Federation-Dedicated to protecting koalas through legislation and education

New South Wales Koala Strategy-Check out what the government of New South Wales is doing for koalas!

World Wildlife Fund, Koala Page-WWF is working hard to save the koalas!

The Australian bushfires are raging as you read this, which have affected over one billion animals and thousands of people. Please consider donating to Animals Australia's critical animal rescue efforts!


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