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Koalas, the Cuddliest Marsupials

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


Koala
Koala. Photo: Unsplash/ Kerin Gedge

What is soft and cuddly, carries its baby on its back, likes to sleep up to 18-20 hours a day, and is definitely not a bear? If you guessed a koala, then you are correct! Although koalas are erroneously called koala bears, they are actually not related to bears. Koalas belong to a class of mammals that have a stomach pouch and are called marsupials.


Read on to learn more about arguably the cuddliest marsupials of our planet!


Koala Offspring

In the koala species, when a baby is born, it instinctively crawls into the pouch of its mother. Once there, the baby resides and feeds until it is old enough to permanently live outside the pouch. A koala baby, called a joey, spends as much as 6-7 months in its mother’s pouch and is weaned in about a year. In the meantime, the mom carries her offspring(s) on her back, from tree to tree. Kangaroos and wombats are other famous marsupials. All these fascinating mammals are found only in Australia. Koalas in the Southern parts of Australia are considerably larger and have thicker fur than those in the North. This is an adaptation to keep them warm in the colder Southern winters.


Koala mother with joey
Koala mother with joey. Photo: pixabay.com
 

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Eucalyptus-eating Snoozers

Koalas are herbivorous and arboreal, meaning they dwell in trees found in the eucalyptus woodlands. They are about 24-33 inches (60-85 cm) long and weigh around 9-33 lb (4-15 Kgs). The leaves of the eucalyptus trees are the major food source for these furry little mammals even though eucalyptus leaves are highly toxic and have high fiber content. Because the eucalyptus leaves have very limited nutritional and caloric value, they spend as much as 18-20 hours sleeping in trees. Generally, koalas are also less active because of their specialized diet since it does not give them a lot of energy. Nonetheless, they are nocturnal creatures and thus, are active after dusk.


Koalas select several trees that become their home and they protect this range by rubbing a sticky substance that comes out of a dark scent gland located on their chest. As a result, other koalas will not intrude into such marked tree ranges. On the other hand, koalas do not have many predators since they live high up in eucalyptus forests.


Sleeping koala
Sleeping koala. Photo: Unsplash/David Clode

The Incredible Evolutionary Traits of Koalas

One of the most remarkable morphological attributes of koalas are the digits on their paws. Koalas have 5 digits on each front paw, two of which are opposed to the others. This is like human thumbs and can be moved differently from the other digits. This helps them to hold firmly onto the branches and to grip their food. The second and third digits on their hind paws are fused together to form a grooming claw. The digits have long claws that help the koala to hold on to branches tightly. The underside of the digits has pads that act like anti-skid devices. These are astonishing features refined over thousands of years of evolution!

Koala grasping tree
Koala grasping tree. Photo: Unsplash/David Clode

Habitat loss is the single most cause for their declining number. Natural disasters such as bushfires are also a threat. The number of koalas remaining in the wild is estimated to be 43,000 to 80,000.



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