Featherdale Wildlife Park
Country Bumpkin Group, October 2012
♥ Artists Universe ♥ Group, October 2012
The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is an arboreal herbivorous marsupial native to Australia, and the only extant representative of the family Phascolarctidae.
The koala is found in coastal regions of eastern and southern Australia, from Adelaide to the southern part of Cape York Peninsula. Populations also extend for considerable distances inland in regions with enough moisture to support suitable woodlands. The koalas of South Australia were largely exterminated during the early part of the 20th century, but the state has since been repopulated with Victorian stock. The koala is not found in Tasmania, the Northern Territory or Western Australia. As of 2012 there have been increasing concerns about the animal’s sustainable future in the environment.
Although three subspecies have been described, these are arbitrary selections from a cline and are not generally accepted as valid. Following Bergmann’s Rule, individuals from the southern cooler climates are larger.
A typical Victorian koala (formerly P. cinereus victor) has longer, thicker fur; is a darker, softer grey, often with chocolate-brown highlights on the back and forearms; and has a more prominently light-coloured ventral side and fluffy white ear tufts. Typical and New South Wales koala weights are 12 kg (26 lb) for males and 8.5 kg (19 lb) for females. In tropical and sub-tropical Queensland, however, the koala is smaller (at around 6.5 kg (14 lb) for an average male and just over 5 kg (11 lb) for an average female); a lighter often rather scruffy grey in colour; and has shorter, thinner fur. In Queensland, the koala was previously classified as the subspecies P. cinereus adustus, and the intermediate forms in New South Wales as P. cinereus cinereus. A fourth variation, though not technically a subspecies, is the “golden koala”, which has a slight golden tinge to the fur as a result of an absence of the melanin pigment that produces albinism in most other mammalian species. The variation from one form to another is continuous and there are substantial differences between individual koalas in any given region such as hair colour. Koalas may also have white fur in rare cases due to a recessive gene.
The origins of the koala are unclear, although almost certainly they descended from terrestrial wombat-like animals. Koala fossils are quite rare, but some have been found in northern Australia dating to 20 million years ago. During this time, the northern half of Australia was rainforest. The koala did not specialise in a diet of eucalypts until the climate cooled and eucalypt forests grew in the place of rainforests. The fossil record indicates that before 50,000 years ago, giant koalas inhabited the southern regions of Australia. The koala fills the same ecological role as the sloths of South America.
The koala is broadly similar in appearance to the wombat (its closest living relative), but has a thicker coat, much larger ears, and longer limbs. The koala has large, sharp claws to assist with climbing tree trunks. Weight varies from about 14 kg (31 lb) for a large southern male, to about 5 kg (11 lb) for a small northern female. The koala’s five fingers include two opposable thumbs, providing better gripping ability. The first two fingers are positioned in apposition on the front paws, and the first three fingers for the hind paws.The koala is one of the few mammals (other than primates) that have fingerprints. Koala fingerprints are similar to human fingerprints; even with an electron microscope, it can be quite difficult to distinguish between the two. The teeth of the koala are adapted to their herbivorous diet, and are similar to those of other diprotodont marsupials, such as kangaroos and wombats. They have sharp incisors to clip leaves at the front of the mouth, separated from the grinding cheek teeth by a wide diastema. The dental formula for koalas is
The male koala, like many marsupials, has a bifurcated penis. The female has two lateral vaginas and two separate uteri, which is common to all marsupials.
The brain in the ancestors of the modern koala once filled the whole cranial cavity, but has become drastically reduced in the present species, a degeneration scientists suspect is an adaptation to a diet low in energy. One of the smallest in marsupials with no more than 0.2% of its body weight, about 40% of the cranial cavity is filled with cerebrospinal fluid, while the brain’s two cerebral hemispheres are like "a pair of shrivelled walnut halves on top of the brain stem, in contact neither with each other nor the bones of the skull. It is the only animal on Earth with such a strangely reduced brain.
It is generally a silent, nocturnal[ animal, but males have a very loud advertising call that can be heard from almost a kilometre away during the breeding season.Females glean clues regarding a male’s suitability as a mate from these calls, showing a preference for larger males.When under stress, koalas may issue a loud cry, which has been reported as similar to that of a human baby.] There is little reliable information about the lifespan of the koala, but in captivity they have been observed to reach the age of 18 years.
Females reach maturity at 2 to 3 years of age, males at 3 to 4 years. A healthy female koala can produce one young each year for about 12 years. Gestation is 35 days. Twins are very rare; the world’s first confirmed identical twin koalas, named “Euca” and “Lyptus”, were born at the University of Queensland in April 1999. Mating normally occurs between December and March, the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.
A baby koala is referred to as a joey and is hairless, blind, and earless. At birth the joey, only 20 mm (0.79 in) long, crawls into the downward-facing pouch on the mother’s belly (which is closed by a drawstring-like muscle that the mother can tighten at will) and attaches itself to one of the two teats.
Young remain hidden in the pouch for about six months, feeding on only milk. During this time they grow ears, eyes, and fur. The joey then begins to explore outside of the pouch. At about this stage it begins to consume small quantities of the mother’s “pap” (formerly thought to be excrement, but now thought to come from the mother’s cecum) in order to inoculate its gut with the microbes necessary to digest eucalypt leaves. The joey will remain with its mother for another six months or so, riding on her back, and feeding on both milk and eucalypt leaves until weaning is complete at about 12 months of age. Young females disperse to nearby areas at that time; young males often stay in the mother’s home range until they are two or three years old.
The koala lives almost entirely on eucalypt leaves. This is likely to be an evolutionary adaptation that takes advantage of an otherwise unfilled ecological niche, since eucalypt leaves are low in protein, high in indigestible substances, and contain phenolic and terpene compounds that are toxic to most species. Like wombats and sloths, the koala has a very low metabolic rate for a mammal and rests motionless for about 16 to 18 hours a day, sleeping most of that time. Koalas can be aggressive towards each other, throwing a foreleg around their opponent and biting, though most aggressive behaviour leads merely to brief squabbles. Handling koalas may cause them stress, and the issue of aggression and stress from handling is a political issue in Australia.
Koalas spend about three of their five active hours eating. Feeding occurs at any time of day, but usually at night. Koalas eat an average of 500 g (18 oz) of eucalypt leaves each day, chewing them with powerful jaws to a very fine paste before swallowing. The liver deactivates the toxic components ready for excretion, and the hind gut (especially the cecum) is greatly enlarged to extract the maximum amount of nutrient from the poor quality diet. Much of this is done through bacterial fermentation: while young are being weaned, the mother passes these essential digestive aids on to her offspring. The koala will eat the leaves of a wide range of eucalypts, and occasionally even some non-eucalypt species such as Acacia, Leptospermum, and Melaleuca. It has firm preferences for particular varieties of eucalypt and these preferences vary from one region to another: in the south Manna Gum, Blue Gum, and Swamp Gum are favoured; Grey Gum and Tallowwood are important in the north, and the ubiquitous River Red Gum of the isolated seasonal swamps and watercourses that meander across the dry inland plains allows the koala to live in surprisingly arid areas. Many factors determine which of the 680 species of eucalypt trees the koala eats. Among trees of their favourite species, however, the major factor that determines which individual trees the koala chooses is the concentration of a group of phenolic toxins called formylated phloroglucinol compounds. Researches on koalas by keepers at 13 wildlife parks and zoos in New South Wales show that the most preferred group of Eucalyptus foliage had the lowest content of condensed tannins.
The Australian government currently lists the koala as a priority species for conservation status assessment. Government estimates of the national koala population numbers in the hundreds of thousands, although other studies have estimated as few as 80,000 koalas left in the wild.The Australian Koala Foundation in 2008 estimated there are around 100,000 koalas left in the wild.
As with most native Australian animals, the koala cannot legally be kept as a pet in Australia or anywhere else. The only people who are permitted to keep koalas are wildlife carers and, occasionally, research scientists. These individuals are issued with special permits to care for koalas, but have to return them to the wild when they are either well enough or, in the case of joeys, old enough.
The IUCN lists the species as “Least Concern”.
In April 2012, it was announced that koalas in NSW, Queensland and the ACT will be classified as vulnerable under a protected listing by Federal Environment Minister of the Australian government Tony Burke.There has been a further heavy decline in the koala population in the wild during 2012. This is due to ongoing large-scale destruction of bushland for housing and other urban developments, with resultant loss of koala hatitat, increased dog attacks and increased traffic, as well as disease and climate change. This is causing a huge number of koala deaths in the wild, leading to koalas being listed, by the Australian Federal Government, as a threatened species. In August, 2012, the koala has also been described as an endangered species.
The US government has declared the koala a threatened species.
The koala inhabits four Australian states. Under state legislation, the species is listed as:
Queensland – Listed as “vulnerable”.
New South Wales – Listed as “vulnerable”.
Australian Capital Territory – Listed as “vulnerable”.
South Australia – classifieed as rare (although the population on Kangaroo Island is thriving).
Victoria – The koala population in Victoria was considered large and thriving, according to an article which was last reviewed on 29 October 2007. Unfortunately, the gene pool is very limited, which means that Victorian koalas are also at risk with environmental change.
The koala was hunted almost to extinction in the early 20th century,largely for its fur. Millions of furs were traded to Europe and the United States, and the population has not fully recovered from such decimations. Extensive cullings occurred in Queensland in 1915, 1917, and again in 1919 when over one million koalas were killed with guns, poisons, and nooses. The public outcry over the cullings was most likely the first wide-scale environmental issue that rallied Australians.Despite the growing movement to protect native species, the poverty brought about by the drought of 1926–28 led to another 600,000 koalas being killed during a one-month open season in August 1927.
Today, habitat loss and the impacts of urbanisation (such as dog attacks and traffic accidents) are the leading threats to the survival of the koala. In recent years, some colonies have been hard hit by disease, especially chlamydia.2011 surveys in Queensland show that chlamydia has caused symptoms in at least 50 percent of the koala population. Chlamydia of koalas is not the same as the human form, but can cause blindness, respiratory infections to all koalas and infertility of female koalas. Moreover nearly all of the koalas in Queensland are infected with koala retrovirus which suppresses the koala’s immune system and interferes with its ability to fight off chlamydia.The koala requires large areas of healthy, connected forest and will travel long distances along tree corridors in search of new territory and mates. The increasing human population of the coastal parts of the continent continues to cut these corridors through agricultural and residential development, forestry, and road-building, thereby marooning koala colonies in decreasing areas of bush. The long-term viability of the koala is therefore threatened by genetic weakness. The Australian Koala Foundation is the principal organisation dedicated to the conservation of the koala and its habitat, mapping 40,000 km2 (15,000 sq mi) of land for koala habitat and claiming strong evidence that wild koala populations are in serious decline throughout the species’ natural range. Local councils in growing urban areas with koala populations that have established or are in the process of establishing planning overlays and controls to preserve habitat for koalas include the Victorian councils of City of Ballarat, Macedon Ranges Shire and Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority as well as the Queensland councils of Moreton Bay Regional Council and Redland Shire Council.
Although the species covers a large area, only portions of koala habitat remain. Many habitats are lost to weeds, clearance for agriculture, or carved up by developers. Other threats come from logging, poor management, attacks from feral and domestic animals, diseases, and roads.