Despite their name, koala bears are not technically bears! The word “koala” comes from an indigenous Australian language. The bear part got added on by English-speaking people new to Australia. When settlers from Europe began arriving in the 1700’s, they heard the native people using the word “koala” and added on the English word “bear” because they believed the koalas to be a type of bear. Settlers also called them “tree bears” and “monkey bears,” but, for whatever reason “koala bear” was the name that finally stuck.
In fact, like opossums, kangaroos, wallabies and other species, koalas are actually marsupials, and mother koalas have a pouch where they carry their young. Unlike other marsupial species, however, a koala pouch opens downward instead of upward. A newborn koala is about the size of large raisin and is also blind and deaf. Pretty much it can do is climb up into the pouch of its mother. Young koalas stay with their mothers for about two years, gradually spending less and less time in the pouch, until they are ready to venture off on their own.
Not so warm and fuzzy
Around the world, koalas have the image of being soft and cuddly animals, and they are a popular model animal for stuffed children’s toys. In real life, koala fur is coarse and wool-like, and is similar to sheep wool; you wouldn’t actually want to snuggle up to koala fur. Furthermore, they have sharp claws, and they aren’t afraid to use them. The grip in their paws is incredibly strong, which makes sense because they climb around in trees.
Why they are so sleepy
Koalas sleep about twenty hours a day, but that’s not because they are lazy. Rather, they live on a diet of tough, stringy eucalyptus leaves that are difficult to digest. Therefore, koalas shut down their bodies through sleep in order to give their digestive tracts the time needed to break down the leaves and extract nutritional value, which is a slow process. There has long been a myth that eucalyptus leaves have an intoxicating effect on koalas and the animals spend so much time sleeping because they need to sober up after a meal, but that’s simply not true.
Interestingly, eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to most other animals. Koalas have special teeth that are able to grind up the leaves, and they have a unique blend of bacteria in their digestive tracts that allow them to break down and extract nutrients from them.
Little need for water
Because they extract moisture from the eucalyptus leaves that make up their entire diet, koalas do not need to drink water. In times of drought or stress, however, they will sometimes drink from streams. When they are forced to do this, they are easy prey from predators on the ground, and that’s why they spend the vast majority of their time among the treetops. Like the sloth, they are an animal that only comes down to ground level when it is absolutely necessary.
Threats to the koala
Koalas only live in parts of Australia where there are forests with plenty of eucalyptus leaves, so they don’t have an enormous range to begin with. They aren’t a highly adaptable type of animal like cats, who can live in pretty much any habitat. When settlers came to Australia from Europe, koalas were hunted for their fur, but eventually they became a protected species and their numbers rebounded to an extent. While there were millions of koalas living in the wild when settlers arrived from Europe, there are only roughly 100,000 in the forests of Australia today.
Unfortunately, the 2019 wildfires in New South Wales destroyed much of their habitat, and this has been a severe blow to the species. Because of their small size and perceived cuteness, the koala became a symbol of the devastation of these brush fires, which captured the attention of the entire world because of their severity. In an effort to help the species, the Australian government will continue to set aside forest areas for koalas and farmers are encouraged not to cut down the eucalyptus trees that koalas depend on.