Koala

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The furry gray koala lives high in the tops of eucalyptus trees. Now a protected species, it is still threatened by the loss of habitat due to seasonal brush fires. While it looks like a small bear, the koala is actually a marsupial whose hands and feet are specially adapted for climbing trees. When it descends to the ground, it shuffles along awkwardly on its short, stocky legs.

Habitat: The koala lives almost exclusively in the top branches of eucalyptus trees. Its strong legs and sharp claws help it grip the trunk. A nocturnal animal, it feeds at night on the young shoots and leaves of high branches, and spends its day sleeping curled up in a fork of a tree.

Koalas and Man: As recently as a hundred years ago, the koala was widespread in Australia. But increased settlement by man brought about a dramatic decline in its population. Much of the koala’s natural habitat was destroyed by fires set deliberately to clear the land. The fur trade introduced another threat to the koala; more than two million skins were exported from Australia in 1924 alone.

Food and Feeding: During the course of its evolution, the koala has developed special cheek pouches that store food and a digestive system to handle a diet consisting entirely of eucalyptus leaves. Of the more than 100 species of eucalyptus tree that grow in Australia, the koala feeds on only twelve. Koalas eat between one and two pounds of leaves daily and can easily exhaust their own food supply. The main difficulty in keeping koalas alive in zoos and sanctuaries is obtaining enough eucalyptus leaves of the right species with which to keep them fed. They cannot survive without eucalyptus. An adult koala eats about 1-2 pounds of eucalyptus leaves a day, some of which it crams into its cheek pouches for chewing later.

Breeding: Koalas mate between December and March. A single baby is born 35 days later. It is blind, hairless, and only ¾ inch long. By instinct, it drags itself into its mothers pouch, which opens to the rear rather than to the front as with most other marsupials. Inside the pouch, the baby koala feeds first on mothers milk and later on half digested food passed through the mothers rectum. After six months, the young koala leaves the pouch and clings to its mothers back, remaining with her until the following mating season. It then moves to another tree and lives independently for two to four years until it is sexually mature. At almost a year old, this koala still clings to its mothers back. She seems happy to oblige, and although her load is no longer light, her specially adapted hands and feet let her climb with ease. A baby koala spends the first 6 months of its life in its mothers pouch. Then, for the next 2 or 3 months, it clings to its mothers fur during the day, returning to her pouch at night. Koala mothers and their young enjoy a close relationship. She will happily carry her youngster until it is time for it to become independent.

Key Facts: Sizes, Breeding, Lifestyle, and Related Species:

Sizes:
Height: 24 in.
Weight: Males, up to 26 lb. Females, 17 lb. Smaller in northern part of range

Breeding:
Sexual Maturity: Males, 3-4 years. Females, 2-3 years
Mating: Dec.-March (Southern Hemisphere’s summer)
Gestation: 25-35 days
No. of young: 1

Lifestyle:
Habit: Solitary tree-dweller, expect during mating
Call: Harsh, unattractive call; sounds like sawing wood
Diet: Eucalyptus leaves
Lifespan: 15-20 years

Related Species: Phalangeridae family includes phalangers and possums
Distribution: Coastal regions of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and parts of South Australia, with the largest concentrations in New South Wales and Victoria.
Conservation: Now a protected species. Sanctuaries flourish in Victoria and Queensland. Re-introduced into South Australia, where it had become locally extinct.

How the Koala Climbs: The koala clasp a tree trunk between its forepaws, and then draws its hind legs up together in a series of small rapid jumps. Thumb and forefinger spread out to give a firm grip. On the hind feet the toes are also separated, with the “big toe” off to one side.

Did You Know:
The koala never drinks because it gets all the liquid it needs from eucalyptus leaves. “Koala” is the aborigine word for “no water.”
The koala is an excellent swimmer, crossing rivers in order to survive heavy flooding.
Ironically, many koalas are killed in sanctuaries by being run over by cars belonging to visitors.
A newborn koala is only the size of a lima bean. Its hind legs are barely formed, but its forelimbs and claws are relatively well developed. It drags itself to the pouch following a trail of saliva laid down by its mother.

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