Australian Animals
and Birds

Some True Facts
about the

- Koala -

Fully-grown koalas are about 78 cm (30 inches) long. They look like cuddly teddy-bears, but though their fur is soft, they're not really cuddly, and they are certainly not bears. Some that have been bred in captivity will hold on to you, but they show little affection and would much prefer to be in trees. But not just any tree. There are only about 5 kinds of Eucalyptus, 'gum trees', that koalas really like to eat - and then they don't eat just any leaves they find. They pick out special ones.

From the 1870's until the late 1920's millions were shot, sometimes at a rate of half a million a month, so that their furry skins could be sold - mainly in America. Many wooded areas have also been cleared, and others continue to be felled or have roads driven through them, and koalas are now not at all common, even though they are protected and no longer hunted. Though some are hit by cars and others killed dogs, destruction of their habitat is now the greatest threat to their survival.

Koalas are mainly found on the eastern side of Australia. If food trees are close together koalas jump from one to another, however, when the trees are further apart they do climb down to the ground. There they shuffle along on all fours. Koalas spend as little time as possible on the ground and climb straight up the next suitable tree they can find to get to the high branches.

There are not many times a year that koalas look for a drink, for they get most of their requirements from dew and the leaves they eat. The word koala means 'no drink'.

Their favourite gum leaves are very tough and stringy. They get some nutrition from them as the chewed pieces pass through the normal parts of their gut (alimentary canal) and are digested, but they obtain even more 'goodness' when the smallest leafy left-overs are fermented in the appendix (caecum). This part of the koala's body is absolutely enormous compared to that of other animals and to a koala's size. It's 2 metres long, 5cm diameter and holds 2 litres (a bit more than 2 yards long, 2 inches wide and holding over 3 pints.)

Koalas get so little nutritional value from their food that they have to save their energy as much as possible, and will sleep as long as 19 hours a day. They are most active at night. If you see one sitting with it's legs dangling down, it's probably trying to cool off. To keep warm they roll themselves into a tight ball.

Fossils show that koalas were alive 15 million years ago. Like kangaroos, they are marsupials - pouched mammals. (Most people say that having a pouch is the main characteristic of a marsupial - but biologists probably wouldn't agree. They would say it's the special features of their male and female organs and reproducive features - but a description of them in detail here would be rather long. (If you really want to know, click here .) Unlike a kangaroo's pouch, which faces towards the mother's head, a koala's pouch has a central opening. The tiny baby, smaller than the size of a baked-bean, crawls through the mother's fur to a nipple in the pouch. As the baby (or joey) grows, it fills up the front end of the pouch, which then appears to face backwards.

After 6 months, when the joey finally gets too big for the mother's pouch, it will ride on her back for another 6 months. Young joeys will play games like hide and seek, but although groups of koalas may live in a local area, individuals have little to do with each other, and males take no part in bringing up the young.