To gaze into their eyes is to touch tranquility. Perhaps
it is because they spend so much of their lives removed from
our terrestrial sphere that these creatures can inspire such
serenity in just one glance. Perched in the canopy of the
tall Eucalyptus forests of Australia, koalas pass their lives
unperturbed, nap to nap, meal to meal.
From their poofy tufts of ears to their rounded rumps, koalas
resemble stuffed teddy bears, but in actuality, they aren’t
bears at all. Koalas, like kangaroos and possums, are marsupials,
meaning they give live birth to jellybean-sized, embryonic
offspring, which climb unaided from the birth canal to its
mother’s pouch. Protected in the pouch, the baby, called a
joey, attaches to its mother’s teat and feeds for six to seven
months, until it has developed eyes, ears and hair. Then it
peeks out at the world for the first time.
What does the world look like from 150 feet up? Koalas eat
and sleep in trees, rarely coming to the ground except to
occasionally change trees or seek shade. On the ground a koala
is vulnerable to dogs and other wandering predators, for it
has an awkward gait and moves slowly. Koalas are designed
for climbing. Lean and muscular, with arms and legs of near-equal
length, koalas possess an excellent sense of balance. Their
front and hind paws have five digits with long, sharp claws.
Rough pads on their palms and soles help in gripping branches.
Their thick fur is ash-grey with a tinge of brown at the ears
and white on their chests, while the fur on their bottoms
is speckled to camouflage them from the ground. Bottom fur
is also thicker, providing them with natural cushions for
the hard branches they sit on.
Koalas spend virtually every waking moment eating. Their
diet consists entirely of gum leaves, mostly of the Eucalyptus
species. Although there are 600 types of Eucalyptus, koalas
are rather fussy about the leaves they will eat. Only trees
grown in areas with suitable soil and adequate rainfall entice
a hungry koala. Their name stems from an Aboriginal word meaning
“no drink”—an apt name, since 90% of the koala’s hydration
comes from leaves. Except during times of drought or illness,
koalas won’t drink water.
Even at their best, gum leaves are poisonous, fibrous, and
low in nutrition. The koala's digestive system is especially
adapted for its diet. Bacteria present in its intestines breaks
down toxic oils in the leaves, while its slow metabolic rate
conserves energy. On average, a koala will sleep 18-20 hours
a day. They sleep mainly during the day when it is hot, and
are most active at the hours of dawn and dusk. They have been
spotted sitting and sleeping in some very interesting positions,
depending on the temperature. In the heat, koalas will dangle
their arms and legs from the branches to keep cool, while
in cold temperatures they curl into tight balls to conserve
heat. Koala’s woolly fur helps to insulate them from extremes
in temperature, while serving as a raincoat in moist weather.
In optimal conditions, koalas live up to ten to twelve years;
although those in the wild generally live half that long or
less. Females live longer than males, and reach sexual maturity
at three or four years old. Depending on the quality of their
ranges, females can produce one offspring per year. After
peeking from its pouch the first time at 22-30 weeks old,
the joey will begin eating pap produced in its mother’s intestines,
in addition to milk. Pap is critical in a young koala’s diet,
for it supplies the bacteria needed to process eucalyptus
leaves. Once the joey is too big for its mother’s pouch, it
uses its claws to hang from her back or her belly. Mothers
and babies are often spotted feeding in this way, or cuddled
together asleep. When a new joey has taken its place in the
pouch the mother koala will wean the year-old adolescent,
and send it off to find its own territory.
Koalas live in societies, although each koala will maintain
an individual range. Long-term territories include food trees
marked by scent, and critical home-range trees, which overlap
into other territories, allowing for social interaction between
koalas. In poor conditions where a range cannot sustain a
society, reproduction will be affected, and the koala population
will dwindle. This is significant in light of the fact that
80% of Australia’s eucalpyt forests have been decimated in
recent years. None are protected, and most occur on privately-owned
property where land-clearing efforts are underway. Thus the
largest threat to koalas is the on-going loss of their habitat.
As we contemplate the koala, dangling from the highest forest
branch, their populace dangling in the brink of its fragile
habitat, koalas impress upon us a lesson in balance. Perhaps
it is this very balance that must be mastered in order to
cultivate the serenity and tranquility that are the hallmark
of the koala.
About the Author
Emma Snow has always adored wild animals. Emma provides content
for Wildlife Animals http://www.wildlife-animals.com
and Riding Stable http://www.riding-stable.com.