ONE OF the most fascinating surprises in strange, unexplored lands in times past must have been the discovery of exciting and unusual animals. This was surely the case in Australia after the year 1788.
Back then, penal colonies around Port Jackson (now Sydney) were settled by convicts brought as prisoners from England to Australia. Ten years later, a freed convict who turned explorer set out for the southern highlands, 80 miles [130 km] inland. He had a pleasant surprise when he first saw the Australian koala. It was, he wrote, “another animal which the natives [Aborigines] call ‘cullawine,’ which much resembles the sloths in America.”
Would you like to examine this fascinating furry bundle that, two hundred years later, has become such a drawing card for tourists to the sunburned land down under? No doubt you would, for next to asking to see a kangaroo, one of the most frequent requests made by visitors to Australia is: “I must see and touch your cuddly teddy bear.”
Not Really a Bear
Without question, the koala is a cuddly little animal. It grows to be only some 30 inches [80 cm] long and does look like a teddy bear, with a button nose and soft, pretty fur. But you may be surprised to know that it is not of the bear family at all.
Oh, yes, it is frequently called a koala bear or Australia’s native bear. But these are all misnomers. Rather than being of the bear family, the koala most closely resembles a wombat, another Australian marsupial, which is much like a beaver.
The Australian Encyclopaedia paints a fascinating picture of this captivating and cuddly creature: “The koala has a stout body, thick woolly fur that is grey to brownish above and yellowish-white below, large rounded furry ears, and a leathery, expanded, almost trunk-like nose . . . The animal climbs very surely but is clumsy on the ground.”
When full-grown, koalas weigh about 30 pounds [14 kg]. They may live for some 20 years in the wild. Some have lived as long as 12 years in captivity.
Like the Australian kangaroo, the koala is a marsupial (from the Latin word marsupium, meaning “pocket” or “pouch”) and has the birth process unique to marsupials. Tiny when born, baby koalas are not yet fully developed and make their way unaided to the mother’s pouch, where they fix themselves to one of her two teats.
Six months later, the little fellow is a fully developed infant and is able to leave the pouch for short periods. But after another two months or so, he is just too big to get back in. Now what to do? No real problem! He rides on his mother’s back, hanging on for dear life as she climbs up and down trees.
However, these free rides cannot last forever, so after another five or six months, junior has to fend for himself. But for this short time, it is an appealing sight to see mother koala happily carrying her baby, which hangs on to her furry back. After leaving his mother, young koala now lives quite a solitary life and only contacts others during mating.
A Leafy Diet
The name koala is derived from an Aboriginal word that implies that the animal does very little drinking. But how can they exist without water? By taking in the dew and from moisture in their diet of gum leaves.
Gum leaves? Yes, koalas browse on some 50 different kinds of eucalyptus trees, but less than a dozen of these are their special favorites. Eucalyptus trees are more commonly known by the name gum, such as forest red gum, gray gum, and Tasmanian blue gum.
A full-grown koala eats a daily quota of about two or three pounds [1 kg] of leaves, chewing them leisurely but thoroughly. They spend most of their time high up in gum trees, coming down only to move to another tree. On the ground they have an awkward, ungainly walk.
Since they are nocturnal animals, most of their day is spent sleeping, perched precariously in the fork of a tree well above the ground. Uncomfortable? They don’t seem to think so, and the location affords excellent protection from any would-be predators.