Temporal range: Pleistocene – RecentMiddle
|Synonyms: 45 |
The koala or, inaccurately, koala bear (Phascolarctos cinereus), is an
Koalas typically inhabit open
Because of its distinctive appearance, the koala along with the
The word koala comes from the
Adopted by white settlers, "koala" became one of several hundred Aboriginal loan words in Australian English, where it was also commonly referred to as "native bear", later "koala bear", for its supposed resemblance to a bear. It is also one of several Aboriginal words that made it into International English, alongside e.g. "didgeridoo" and "kangaroo." The generic name, Phascolarctos, is derived from the Greek words phaskolos "pouch" and arktos "bear". The specific name, cinereus, is Latin for "ash coloured".
Taxonomy and evolution
The koala was given its generic name Phascolarctos in 1816 by French zoologist
The koala is classified with wombats (family Vombatidae) and several extinct families (including marsupial tapirs, marsupial lions and giant wombats) in the suborder Vombatiformes within the order Diprotodontia. The Vombatiformes are a sister group to a clade that includes macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) and possums. The koala's lineage possibly branched off around 40 million years ago during the Eocene. The following Vombatiformes family tree is based on to Beck and colleges (2020).
The modern koala is the only: 226
P. cinereus may have emerged as a dwarf form of the giant koala (P. stirtoni). The reduction in the size of large mammals has been seen as a common phenomenon worldwide during the late Pleistocene, and several Australian mammals, such as the agile wallaby, are traditionally believed to have resulted from this dwarfing. A 2008 study questions this hypothesis, noting that P. cinereus and P. stirtoni were sympatric during the middle to late Pleistocene, and possibly as early as the Pliocene. The fossil record of the modern koala extends back at least to the middle Pleistocene.
Genetics and variations
Characteristics and adaptations
The koala is a stocky animal with a large head and
The pelage of the koala is thicker and longer on the back, and shorter on the belly. The ears have thick fur on both the inside and outside.
The koala has one of the smallest
The koala has several adaptations for its eucalypt diet, which is of low nutritive value, high toxicity, and high in
Unlike kangaroos and eucalyptus-eating possums, koalas are
Distribution and habitat
The koala's geographic range covers roughly 1,000,000 km2 (390,000 sq mi), and 30 ecoregions. It extends throughout eastern and southeastern Australia, encompassing northeastern, central and southeastern Queensland, eastern New South Wales, Victoria, and southeastern South Australia. The koala was reintroduced near Adelaide and on several islands, including Kangaroo Island and French Island. The population on Magnetic Island represents the northern limit of its range. Fossil evidence shows that the koala's range stretched as far west as southwestern Western Australia during the late Pleistocene. Koalas were introduced to Western Australia at Yanchep. They were likely driven to extinction in these areas by environmental changes and hunting by Indigenous Australians.: 12–13 In South Australia, koalas were only known to exist in recent times in the lower South East,: 32 with a remnant population in the Bangham Forest between Bordertown and Naracoorte, until introduced to the Mount Lofty Ranges in the 20th-century. Doubts have been cast on Eyre's identification as koala pelt a girdle being worn by an Aboriginal man, the only evidence of their recent existence elsewhere in the State.
Koalas can be found in habitats ranging from relatively open forests to
Ecology and behaviour
Foraging and activities
Because they get so little energy from their diet, koalas must limit their
Koalas are asocial animals and spend just 15 minutes a day on social behaviours. In Victoria,
Adult males communicate with loud bellows—low pitched sounds that consist of snore-like inhalations and resonant exhalations that sound like growls. These sounds are thought to be generated by unique vocal organs found in koalas. Because of their low frequency, these bellows can travel far through air and vegetation.: 56 Koalas may bellow at any time of the year, particularly during the breeding season, when it serves to attract females and possibly intimidate other males. They also bellow to advertise their presence to their neighbours when they enter a new tree.: 57 These sounds signal the male's actual body size, as well as exaggerate it; females pay more attention to bellows that originate from larger males. Female koalas bellow, though more softly, in addition to making snarls, wails, and screams. These calls are produced when in distress and when making defensive threats. Young koalas squeak when in distress. As they get older, the squeak develops into a "squawk" produced both when in distress and to show aggression. When another individual climbs over it, a koala makes a low grunt with its mouth closed. Koalas make numerous facial expressions. When snarling, wailing, or squawking, the animal curls the upper lip and points its ears forward. During screams, the lips retract and the ears are drawn back. Females bring their lips forward and raise their ears when agitated.: 102–05
Agonistic behaviour typically consists of squabbles between individuals climbing over or passing each other. This occasionally involves biting. Males that are strangers may wrestle, chase, and bite each other.: 102  In extreme situations, a male may try to displace a smaller rival from a tree. This involves the larger aggressor climbing up and attempting to corner the victim, which tries either to rush past him and climb down or to move to the end of a branch. The aggressor attacks by grasping the target by the shoulders and repeatedly biting him. Once the weaker individual is driven away, the victor bellows and marks the tree.: 101–02 Pregnant and lactating females are particularly aggressive and attack individuals that come too close. In general, however, koalas tend to avoid energy-wasting aggressive behaviour.: 191
Reproduction and development
Koalas are seasonal breeders, and births take place from the middle of spring through the summer to early autumn, from October to May. Females in
A female koala has two teats; the joey attaches itself to one of them and suckles for the rest of its pouch life.: 61 The koala has one of the lowest milk energy production rates, relative to body size, of any mammal. The female makes up for this by lactating for as long as 12 months.: 62 At seven weeks of age, the joey's head grows longer and becomes proportionally large, pigmentation begins to develop, and its sex can be determined (the scrotum appears in males and the pouch begins to develop in females). At 13 weeks, the joey weighs around 50 g (1.8 oz) and its head has doubled in size. The eyes begin to open and fine fur grows on the forehead, nape, shoulders, and arms. At 26 weeks, the fully furred animal resembles an adult and begins to poke its head out of the pouch.: 63
As the young koala approaches six months, the mother begins to prepare it for its eucalyptus diet by predigesting the leaves, producing a faecal pap that the joey eats from her cloaca. The pap is quite different in composition from regular faeces, resembling instead the contents of the caecum, which has a high concentration of bacteria. Eaten for about a month, the pap provides a supplementary source of protein at a transition time from a milk to a leaf diet.: 235 The joey fully emerges from the pouch for the first time at six or seven months of age, when it weighs 300–500 g (11–18 oz). It explores its new surroundings cautiously, clinging to its mother for support. By nine months, it weighs over 1 kg (2.2 lb) and develops its adult fur colour. Having permanently left the pouch, it rides on its mother's back for transportation, learning to climb by grasping branches.: 65–66 Gradually, it spends more time away from its mother, who becomes pregnant again after 12 months when the young is now around 2.5 kg (5.5 lb). Her bond with her previous offspring is permanently severed and she no longer allows it to suckle, but it will continue to live near her for the next 6–12 months.: 66–67
Females become sexually mature at about three years of age and can then become pregnant; in comparison, males reach sexual maturity when they are about four years old, although they can produce sperm as early as two years.: 68 While the chest glands can be functional as early as 18 months of age, males do not begin scent-marking behaviours until they reach sexual maturity. Because the offspring have a long dependent period, female koalas usually breed in alternate years. Favourable environmental factors, such as a plentiful supply of high-quality food trees, allow them to reproduce every year.: 236
Health and mortality
Koalas may live from 13 to 18 years in the wild. While female koalas usually live this long, males may die sooner because of their more hazardous lives.
Koalas can be subject to
The animals are vulnerable to
The first written reference to the koala was recorded by John Price, servant of
The first published image of the koala appeared in
... the eye is placed like that of the Sloth, very close to the mouth and nose, which gives it a clumsy awkward appearance, and void of elegance in the combination ... they have little either in their character or appearance to interest the Naturalist or Philosopher. As Nature however provides nothing in vain, we may suppose that even these torpid, senseless creatures are wisely intended to fill up one of the great links of the chain of animated nature ...
Naturalist and popular artist John Gould illustrated and described the koala in his three-volume work The Mammals of Australia (1845–1863) and introduced the species, as well as other members of Australia's little-known faunal community, to the general British public.: 87–93 Comparative anatomist Richard Owen, in a series of publications on the physiology and anatomy of Australian mammals, presented a paper on the anatomy of the koala to the Zoological Society of London. In this widely cited publication, he provided the first careful description of its internal anatomy, and noted its general structural similarity to the wombat.: 94–96 English naturalist George Robert Waterhouse, curator of the Zoological Society of London, was the first to correctly classify the koala as a marsupial in the 1840s. He identified similarities between it and its fossil relatives Diprotodon and Nototherium, which had been discovered just a few years before.: 46–48 Similarly, Gerard Krefft, curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney, noted evolutionary mechanisms at work when comparing the koala to its ancestral relatives in his 1871 The Mammals of Australia.: 103–105
The first living koala in Britain arrived in 1881, purchased by the Zoological Society of London. As related by prosecutor to the society, William Alexander Forbes, the animal suffered an accidental demise when the heavy lid of a washstand fell on it and it was unable to free itself. Forbes used the opportunity to dissect the fresh female specimen, thus was able to provide explicit anatomical details on the female reproductive system, the brain, and the liver—parts not previously described by Owen, who had access only to preserved specimens.: 105–06 Scottish embryologist William Caldwell—well known in scientific circles for determining the reproductive mechanism of the platypus—described the uterine development of the koala in 1884, and used the new information to convincingly place the koala and the monotremes into an evolutionary time frame.: 111
The koala is well known worldwide and is a major draw for Australian zoos and wildlife parks. It has been featured in advertisements, games, cartoons, and as soft toys.: ix It benefited the national tourism industry by over an estimated billion Australian dollars in 1998, a figure that has since grown.: 201 In 1997, half of the visitors to Australia, especially those from Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, sought out zoos and wildlife parks; about 75% of European and Japanese tourists placed the koala at the top of their list of animals to see.: 216 According to biologist Stephen Jackson: "If you were to take a straw poll of the animal most closely associated with Australia, it's a fair bet that the koala would come out marginally in front of the kangaroo".: ix Factors that contribute to the koala's enduring popularity include its childlike body proportions and teddy bear-like face.: 3
The koala is featured in the
Early European settlers in Australia considered the koala to be a prowling
The song "Ode to a Koala Bear" appears on the
The drop bear is an imaginary creature in contemporary Australian folklore featuring a predatory, carnivorous version of the koala. This hoax animal is commonly spoken about in tall tales designed to scare tourists. While koalas are typically docile herbivores, drop bears are described as unusually large and vicious marsupials that inhabit treetops and attack unsuspecting people (or other prey) that walk beneath them by dropping onto their heads from above.
At the 2014 G20 Brisbane summit, hosted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, many world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama were photographed holding koalas. The event gave rise to the term "koala diplomacy", which then became the Oxford Word of the Month for December 2016. The term also includes the loan of koalas by the Australian government to overseas zoos in countries such as Singapore and Japan, as a form of "soft power diplomacy", like the "panda diplomacy" practised by China.
The koala was originally classified as Least Concern on the Red List, and reassessed as Vulnerable in 2014. In the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Queensland, the species was listed under the EPBC Act in February 2022 as endangered by extinction. The described population was determined in 2012 to be "a species for the purposes of the EPBC Act 1999" in Federal legislation.
Australian policymakers had declined a 2009 proposal to include the koala in the
The koala was heavily hunted by European settlers in the early 20th century,: 121–128 largely for its thick, soft fur. More than two million pelts are estimated to have left Australia by 1924. Pelts were in demand for use in rugs, coat linings, muffs, and as trimming on women's garments.: 125 The first successful efforts at conserving the species were initiated by the establishment of Brisbane's Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and Sydney's Koala Park Sanctuary in the 1920s and 1930s. The owner of the latter park, Noel Burnet, became the first to successfully breed koalas and earned a reputation as the foremost contemporary authority on the marsupial.: 157–159
One of the biggest anthropogenic threats to the koala is habitat destruction and fragmentation. In coastal areas, the main cause of this is urbanisation, while in rural areas, habitat is cleared for agriculture. Native forest trees are also taken down to be made into wood products.: 104–107 In 2000, Australia ranked fifth in the world by deforestation rates, having cleared 564,800 hectares (1,396,000 acres).: 222 The distribution of the koala has shrunk by more than 50% since European arrival, largely due to fragmentation of habitat in Queensland. Nevertheless, koalas live in many protected areas.
While urbanisation can pose a threat to koala populations, the animals can survive in urban areas provided enough trees are present.
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- Arkive – images and movies of the koala Phascolarctos cinereus
- Animal Diversity Web – Phascolarctos cinereus
- iNaturalist crowdsourced koala sighting photos (mapped, graphed)
- Koala Science Community
- "Koala Crunch Time" – an ABC documentary (2012)
- "Koalas deserve full protection"
- Cracking the Koala Code – a PBS Naturedocumentary (2012)
- The Aussie Koala Ark Conservation Project