August 14, 2013

Wildlife Wednesday: The Koala

How can you not love this cute, small, and furry marsupial? They kind of look like little cartoons. They have gray to brown colored fur with a white underbelly. They lazily make their way through the tree branches to eat, sleep, and nurse its young. Spending most of their lifecycle in the trees, they only descend to the ground if necessary.
Mothers give birth and raise only one baby koala at time. During the mother’s lifecycle she will produce up to six cubs. A newborn koala baby is called a “joey” and does not resemble an adult since it is born blind with undeveloped features. A joey measures less than one inch in length. Upon birth the joey makes its way to the mother’s pouch and attaches itself inside. It then develops its eyes, legs, and fur. In fact it lives in the mother’s pouch for about six months. When it emerges from the pouch it takes on the familiar cute and cuddly appearance of an adult. Eventually the baby koala transfers itself to the mother’s back to hitch a free ride. It continues to nurse off the mother’s milk for up to a year and eats eucalyptus leaves. Some baby koalas want to use the safety of the pouch longer than necessary but their size prohibits them from climbing back inside. When the next joey is born it is time for last season’s baby to say goodbye.

Eucalyptus leaves is the only food koalas eat. Although the leaves are poisonous to most animals, they have special bacteria that live in their stomachs to break down and digest them. Their diet includes up to one pound of leaves a day. The koala has special teeth adapted for their eucalyptus diet. The majority of their front and back teeth act like scissors to chop the leaves into pieces suitable for digestion and eucalyptus leaves have a fair amount of moisture hence koalas seldom drink water. There are many different varieties of eucalyptus trees in the wild. In fact each koala is particular about what kind they will eat. Baby koalas acquire their taste for specific varieties by adulthood. One of the main reasons koalas are endangered in some areas is the destruction of native eucalyptus forest habitats. Eucalyptus leaves are high in fiber and low in nutrients. In addition to eating large amounts, koalas are able to survive on their diet since they have a slow metabolic system to conserve nutrients and energy. Since they have no natural predators in Australia, this adaptation is not to their disadvantage.
The koala’s habitat is in the country of Australia. Their range is between the eastern and southern parts of the country. Information facts about their population and habitat vary, but they live mainly in the Australian states of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria.  Although their habitat is in four states of Australia, they live in fragmented territories separated by various man made development activities. Their entire life cycle is restricted by these artificial borders. Their habitat continues to decline as human populations demand more land resources, endangering some koalas. Human pet predators are an additional threat. Baby koalas in particular are vulnerable.
Although the koala does not live in the United States, it is in fact listed under the United States Endangered Species Act as threatened. In its native country of Australia there is no uniform status definition. Their status is dependent on each particular region of each Australian state, which in turn is dependent on population and habitat information. Some areas list it as vulnerable or rare, yet others list it as common.
Although it has no natural predators, the area where it is at risk is highest where the koala’s habitat has been destroyed and/or poaching and hunting is prevalent. In areas where they are common there is a danger of over feeding since they all eat the same kind of plant.
Overall stress on the livelihood of these animals is increasing as threats caused by manmade activities shrink and impact their natural environment. Conservation measures will ultimately be necessary to save their habitat and population. Although they have unique adaptations for living in their habitat of eucalyptus forests, wildlife in general cannot adapt as fast as the rapid changes brought on by mankind.
Although they are cute, cuddly, and baby like, wild Koalas should not be approached or handled. Information on koala attacks are very rare and they are not considered dangerous. Still, wild animals in general should be respected from a distance. They do have sharp claws and teeth and can use them if necessary.
In Australia koalas that live in the wild have no natural predators. They are in fact at the top of the food chain in their habitat. Large birds such as owls have been known to prey on baby koalas, although such information is scarce. By definition koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves, they do not prey on other animals.

A Few Fun Facts:
Kolas can grow Up to 3 feet in length.
Koalas weigh 20 to 30 pounds.
Koala information gathered from both wild and captive habitats suggest koalas live to be around 15 to 20 years.
Definition: The koala is a nocturnal marsupial and is a herbivore.
Fun fact: The word “marsupial” is from the Latin word “marsupium”, which translates to “pouch”.
Body structure: Its head has a long black nose, small round eyes, and big ears. It has strong limbs and the claws of its paws are designed to grasp and climb branches easily. The koala body structure is small and not “top heavy”, enabling it to maneuver and balance on tree branches.
Sleeping time: Up to 20 hours a day!
Communication: Scratch and scent markings. Vocalization sounds: screeches, bellows, murmurs.
Diet: Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves.
Habitat: Majority populations are in the south eastern regions of Australia.
Baby Koalas: Weight: under 0.04 ounces. Size: under 1 inch in length.
Mating Season: Breeding is from October through March.
Gestation period: 30 to 35 days.
Age of Maturity: 2 to 3 years.
Koalas have no natural predators and no prey
Koala’s biggest enemy is mankind.
They are from the subspecies Northern (adustus), Intermediate (cinereus), and Southern (victor).
Koalas have a slow metabolism, paws with claws adapted for climbing/hanging, and scissor like teeth for processing eucalyptus leaves.

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All Photos Courtesy of Images

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