The koala (
Phascolarctos cinereus, or, inaccurately, koala bear[a]) is
an arboreal herbivorous marsupial native to Australia. It is the only
extant representative of the family
Phascolarctidae and its closest
living relatives are the wombats. The koala is found in coastal areas
of the mainland's eastern and southern regions, inhabiting Queensland,
New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. It is easily
recognisable by its stout, tailless body and large head with round,
fluffy ears and large, spoon-shaped nose. The koala has a body length
of 60–85 cm (24–33 in) and weighs 4–15 kg
Pelage colour ranges from silver grey to chocolate
brown. Koalas from the northern populations are typically smaller and
lighter in colour than their counterparts further south. These
populations possibly are separate subspecies, but this is disputed.
Koalas typically inhabit open eucalypt woodlands, and the leaves of
these trees make up most of their diet. Because this eucalypt diet has
limited nutritional and caloric content, koalas are largely sedentary
and sleep up to 20 hours a day. They are asocial animals, and bonding
exists only between mothers and dependent offspring. Adult males
communicate with loud bellows that intimidate rivals and attract
mates. Males mark their presence with secretions from scent glands
located on their chests. Being marsupials, koalas give birth to
underdeveloped young that crawl into their mothers' pouches, where
they stay for the first six to seven months of their lives. These
young koalas, known as joeys, are fully weaned around a year old.
Koalas have few natural predators and parasites, but are threatened by
various pathogens, such as
Chlamydiaceae bacteria and the koala
retrovirus, as well as by bushfires and droughts.
Koalas were hunted by indigenous Australians and depicted in myths and
cave art for millennia. The first recorded encounter between a
European and a koala was in 1798, and an image of the animal was
published in 1810 by naturalist George Perry. Botanist Robert Brown
wrote the first detailed scientific description of the koala in 1814,
although his work remained unpublished for 180 years. Popular artist
John Gould illustrated and described the koala, introducing the
species to the general British public. Further details about the
animal's biology were revealed in the 19th century by several English
scientists. Because of its distinctive appearance, the koala is
recognised worldwide as a symbol of Australia. Koalas are listed as
Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Australian government similarly lists specific populations in
New South Wales
New South Wales as Vulnerable. The animal was hunted
heavily in the early 20th century for its fur, and large-scale
Queensland resulted in a public outcry that initiated a
movement to protect the species. Sanctuaries were established, and
translocation efforts moved to new regions koalas whose habitat had
become fragmented or reduced. The biggest threat to their existence is
habitat destruction caused by agriculture and urbanisation.
2 Taxonomy and evolution
2.1 Genetics and variations
4 Ecology and behaviour
4.1 Foraging and activities
4.2 Social spacing
4.3 Reproduction and development
4.4 Health and mortality
5 Human relations
5.2 Cultural significance
5.3 Conservation issues
6 See also
9 External links
The word koala comes from the Dharug gula. Although the vowel 'u' was
originally written in the
English orthography as "oo" (in spellings
such as coola or koolah), it was changed to "oa", possibly in
error. Because of the koala's supposed resemblance to a bear, it
was often miscalled the koala bear, particularly by early settlers.
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
Phylogeny of Diprotodontia, (with outgroup)
The koala was given its generic name
Phascolarctos in 1816 by French
zoologist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, who would not give it
a specific name until further review. In 1819, German zoologist Georg
August Goldfuss gave it the binomial Lipurus cinereus. Because
Phascolarctos was published first, according to the International Code
of Zoological Nomenclature, it has priority as the official name of
the genus. French naturalist
Anselme Gaëtan Desmarest
Anselme Gaëtan Desmarest proposed
the name Phascolartos fuscus in 1820, suggesting that the
brown-coloured versions were a different species than the grey ones.
Other names suggested by European authors included Marodactylus
cinereus by Goldfuss in 1820, P. flindersii by René Primevère
Lesson in 1827, and P. koala by
John Edward Gray
John Edward Gray in 1827.
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
Vombatiformes are a sister group to a clade
that includes macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) and possums. The
ancestors of vombatiforms were likely arboreal, and the koala's
lineage was possibly the first to branch off around 40 million years
ago during the Eocene.
Reconstructions of the ancient koalas Nimiokoala (larger), and
Litokoala (smaller), from the
Miocene Riversleigh Fauna
The modern koala is the only extant member of Phascolarctidae, a
family that once included several genera and species. During the
Oligocene and Miocene, koalas lived in rainforests and had less
specialised diets. Some species, such as the Riversleigh
rainforest koala (Nimiokoala greystanesi) and some species of
Perikoala, were around the same size as the modern koala, while
others, such as species of Litokoala, were one-half to two-thirds its
size. Like the modern species, prehistoric koalas had well
developed ear structures which suggests that long-distance vocalising
and sedentism developed early. During the Miocene, the Australian
continent began drying out, leading to the decline of rainforests and
the spread of open
Eucalyptus woodlands. The genus
Litokoala in the late Miocene and had several adaptations
that allowed it to live on a specialised eucalyptus diet: a shifting
of the palate towards the front of the skull; larger molars and
premolars; smaller pterygoid fossa; and a larger gap between the
molar and the incisor teeth.
Pliocene and Pleistocene, when
changes in climate and vegetation, koala species grew larger. 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
Genetics and variations
Traditionally, three distinct subspecies have been recognised: the
Queensland koala (P. c. adustus, Thomas 1923), the New South
Wales koala (P. c. cinereus, Goldfuss 1817), and the
Victorian koala (P. c. victor, Troughton 1935). These forms
are distinguished by pelage colour and thickness, body size, and skull
Queensland koala is the smallest of the three, with
shorter, silver fur and a shorter skull. The Victorian koala is the
largest, with shaggier, brown fur and a wider skull. The
boundaries of these variations are based on state borders, and their
status as subspecies is disputed. A 1999 genetic study suggests that
the variations represent differentiated populations with limited gene
flow between them, and that the three subspecies comprise a single
evolutionarily significant unit. Other studies have found that
koala populations have high levels of inbreeding and low genetic
variation. Such low genetic diversity may have been a
characteristic of koala populations since the late Pleistocene.
Rivers and roads have been shown to limit gene flow and contribute to
the genetic differentiation of southeast
In April 2013, scientists from the
Australian Museum and Queensland
University of Technology announced they had fully sequenced the koala
Scratching and grooming
The koala is a stocky animal with a large head and vestigial or
non-existent tail. It has a body length of 60–85 cm
(24–33 in) and a weight of 4–15 kg (9–33 lb),
making it among the largest arboreal marsupials. Koalas from
Victoria are twice as heavy as those from Queensland. The species
is sexually dimorphic, with males 50% larger than females. Males are
further distinguished from females by their more curved noses and
the presence of chest glands, which are visible as hairless
patches. As in most marsupials, the male koala has a bifurcated
penis, and the female has two lateral vaginas and two separate
uteri. The male's penile sheath contains naturally occurring
bacteria that play an important role in fertilisation. The
female's pouch opening is tightened by a sphincter that keeps the
young from falling out.
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 back fur colour varies from light grey to chocolate
brown. The belly fur is whitish; on the rump it is dappled
whitish, and darker at the back. The koala has the most effective
insulating back fur of any marsupial and is highly resilient to wind
and rain, while the belly fur can reflect solar radiation. The
koala's curved, sharp claws are well adapted for climbing trees. The
large forepaws have two opposable digits (the first and second, which
are opposable to the other three) that allow them to grasp small
branches. On the hindpaws, the second and third digits are fused, a
typical condition for members of the Diprotodontia, and the attached
claws (which are still separate) are used for grooming. As in
humans and other primates, koalas have friction ridges on their
paws. The animal has a sturdy skeleton and a short, muscular upper
body with proportionately long upper limbs that contribute to its
climbing and grasping abilities. Additional climbing strength is
achieved with thigh muscles that attach to the shinbone lower than
other animals. The koala has a cartilaginous pad at the end of the
spine that may make it more comfortable when it perches in the fork of
The koala has one of the smallest brains in proportion to body weight
of any mammal, being 60% smaller than that of a typical
diprotodont, weighing only 19.2 g (0.68 oz). The brain's
surface is fairly smooth, typical for a "primitive" animal. It
occupies only 61% of the cranial cavity and is pressed against the
inside surface by cerebrospinal fluid. The function of this relatively
large amount of fluid is not known, although one possibility is that
it acts as a shock absorber, cushioning the brain if the animal falls
from a tree. The koala's small brain size may be an adaptation to
the energy restrictions imposed by its diet, which is insufficient to
sustain a larger brain. Because of its small brain, the koala has
a limited ability to perform complex, unfamiliar behaviours. For
example, when presented with plucked leaves on a flat surface, the
animal cannot adapt to the change in its normal feeding routine and
will not eat the leaves. The koala's olfactory senses are normal,
and it is known to sniff the oils of individual branchlets to assess
their edibility. Its nose is fairly large and covered in leathery
skin. Its round ears provide it with good hearing, and it has a
well-developed middle ear. A koala's vision is not well
developed, and its relatively small eyes are unusual among
marsupials in that the pupils have vertical slits. Koalas make use
of a novel vocal organ to produce low-pitched sounds (see social
spacing, below). Unlike typical mammalian vocal cords, which are folds
in the larynx, these organs are placed in the velum (soft palate) and
are called velar vocal cords.
Teeth of a koala, from left to right: molars, premolars (dark),
diastema, canines, incisors
The koala has several adaptations for its eucalypt diet, which is of
low nutritive value, of high toxicity, and high in dietary fibre.
The animal's dentition consists of the incisors and cheek teeth (a
single premolar and four molars on each jaw), which are separated by a
large gap (a characteristic feature of herbivorous mammals). The
incisors are used for grasping leaves, which are then passed to the
premolars to be snipped at the petiole before being passed to the
highly cusped molars, where they are shredded into small pieces.
Koalas may also store food in their cheek pouches before it is ready
to be chewed. The partially worn molars of middle-aged koalas are
optimal for breaking the leaves into small particles, resulting in
more efficient stomach digestion and nutrient absorption in the small
intestine, which digests the eucalyptus leaves to provide most of
the animal's energy. A koala sometimes regurgitates the food into
the mouth to be chewed a second time.
Unlike kangaroos and eucalyptus-eating possums, koalas are hindgut
fermenters, and their digestive retention can last for up to 100 hours
in the wild, or up to 200 hours in captivity. This is made
possible by the extraordinary length of their caecum—200 cm
(80 in) long and 10 cm (4 in) in diameter—the largest
proportionally of any animal. Koalas can select which food
particles to retain for longer fermentation and which to pass through.
Large particles typically pass through more quickly, as they would
take more time to digest. While the hindgut is proportionally
larger in the koala than in other herbivores, only 10% of the animal's
energy is obtained from fermentation. Since the koala gains a low
amount of energy from its diet, its metabolic rate is half that of a
typical mammal, although this can vary between seasons and
sexes. The koala conserves water by passing relatively dry faecal
pellets high in undigested fibre, and by storing water in the
Ecology and behaviour
Walking on ground
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
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. They were likely driven to
extinction in these areas by environmental changes and hunting by
In Queensland, koalas are unevenly distributed and uncommon except in
the southeast, where they are numerous. In New South Wales, they are
abundant only in Pilliga, while in Victoria they are common nearly
everywhere. In South Australia, koalas were extirpated by 1920 and
subsequently reintroduced. Koalas can be found in habitats ranging
from relatively open forests to woodlands, and in climates ranging
from tropical to cool temperate. In semi-arid climates, they
prefer riparian habitats, where nearby streams and creeks provide
refuge during times of drought and extreme heat.
Foraging and activities
Koalas are herbivorous, and while most of their diet consists of
eucalypt leaves, they can be found in trees of other genera, such as
Acacia, Allocasuarina, Callitris, Leptospermum, and Melaleuca.
Although the foliage of over 600 species of
Eucalyptus is available,
the koala shows a strong preference for around 30. They tend to
choose species that have a high protein content and low proportions of
fibre and lignin. The most favoured species are Eucalyptus
microcorys, E. tereticornis, and E. camaldulensis, which, on
average, make up more than 20% of their diet. Despite its
reputation as a fussy eater, the koala is more generalist than some
other marsupial species, such as the greater glider. Since eucalypt
leaves have a high water content, the koala does not need to drink
often; its daily water turnover rate ranges from 71 to 91 ml/kg of
body weight. Although females can meet their water requirements from
eating leaves, larger males require additional water found on the
ground or in tree hollows. When feeding, a koala holds onto a
branch with hindpaws and one forepaw while the other forepaw grasps
foliage. Small koalas can move close to the end of a branch, but
larger ones stay near the thicker bases. Koalas consume up to 400
grams (14 oz) of leaves a day, spread over four to six feeding
sessions. Despite their adaptations to a low-energy lifestyle,
they have meagre fat reserves and need to feed often.
Because they get so little energy from their diet, koalas must limit
their energy use and sleep 20 hours a day; only 4 hours a day are
spent in active movement. They are predominantly active at night
and spend most of their waking hours feeding. They typically eat and
sleep in the same tree, possibly for as long as a day. On very hot
days, a koala may climb down to the coolest part of the tree which is
cooler than the surrounding air. The koala hugs the tree to lose heat
without panting. On warm days, a koala may rest with its back
against a branch or lie on its stomach or back with its limbs
dangling. During cold, wet periods, it curls itself into a tight
ball to conserve energy. On windy days, a koala finds a lower,
thicker branch on which to rest. While it spends most of the time in
the tree, the animal descends to the ground to move to another tree,
walking on all fours. The koala usually grooms itself with its
hindpaws, but sometimes uses its forepaws or mouth.
A bellowing male in the Lone Pine
Koalas are asocial animals and spend just 15 minutes a day on social
behaviours. In Victoria, home ranges are small and have extensive
overlap, while in central
Queensland they are larger and overlap
Koala society appears to consist of "residents" and
"transients", the former being mostly adult females and the latter
males. Resident males appear to be territorial and dominate others
with their larger body size. Alpha males tend to establish their
territories close to breeding females, while younger males are
subordinate until they mature and reach full size. Adult males
occasionally venture outside their home ranges; when they do so,
dominant ones retain their status. When a male enters a new tree,
he marks it by rubbing his chest gland against the trunk or a branch;
males have occasionally been observed to dribble urine on the trunk.
This scent-marking behaviour probably serves as communication, and
individuals are known to sniff the base of a tree before climbing.
Scent marking is common during aggressive encounters. Chest gland
secretions are complex chemical mixtures—about 40 compounds were
identified in one analysis—that vary in composition and
concentration with the season and the age of the individual.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Pregnant and lactating females
are particularly aggressive and attack individuals that come too
close. In general, however, koalas tend to avoid energy-wasting
Reproduction and development
Mother with joey on back
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 oestrus tend to hold their heads further back than usual
and commonly display tremors and spasms. However, males do not appear
to recognise these signs, and have been observed to mount non-oestrous
females. Because of his much larger size, a male can usually force
himself on a female, mounting her from behind, and in extreme cases,
the male may pull the female out of the tree. A female may scream and
vigorously fight off her suitors, but will submit to one that is
dominant or is more familiar. The bellows and screams that accompany
matings can attract other males to the scene, obliging the incumbent
to delay mating and fight off the intruders. These fights may allow
the female to assess which is dominant. Older males usually have
accumulated scratches, scars, and cuts on the exposed parts of their
noses and on their eyelids.
The koala's gestation period lasts 33–35 days, and a female
gives birth to a single joey (although twins occur on occasion). As
with all marsupials, the young are born while at the embryonic stage,
weighing only 0.5 g (0.02 oz). However, they have relatively
well-developed lips, forelimbs, and shoulders, as well as functioning
respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems. The joey crawls into its
mother's pouch to continue the rest of its development. Unlike
most other marsupials, the koala does not clean her pouch.
A female koala has two teats; the joey attaches itself to one of them
and suckles for the rest of its pouch life. The koala has one of
the lowest milk energy production rates in relation to body size of
any mammal. The female makes up for this by lactating for as long as
12 months. 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.
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 cloacum. 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. 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. Gradually, it spends more time away from its mother, and
at 12 months it is fully weaned, weighing around 2.5 kg
(5.5 lb). When the mother becomes pregnant again, her bond with
her previous offspring is permanently severed. Newly weaned young are
encouraged to disperse by their mothers' aggressive behaviour towards
A young joey, preserved at Port Macquarie
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. 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.
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 usually survive falls from trees and
immediately climb back up, but injuries and deaths from falls do
occur, particularly in inexperienced young and fighting males.
Around six years of age, the koala's chewing teeth begin to wear down
and their chewing efficiency decreases. Eventually, the cusps
disappear completely and the animal will die of starvation.
Koalas have few predators; dingos and large pythons may prey on them,
while birds of prey (such as powerful owls and wedge-tailed eagles)
are threats to young. They are generally not subject to external
parasites, other than ticks in coastal areas. Koalas may also suffer
mange from the mite Sarcoptes scabiei, and skin ulcers from the
bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans, but neither is common. Internal
parasites are few and largely harmless. These include the tapeworm
Bertiella obesa, commonly found in the intestine, and the nematodes
Marsupostrongylus longilarvatus and Durikainema phascolarcti, which
are infrequently found in the lungs. In a three-year study of
almost 600 koalas admitted to the Australian Zoo Wildlife Hospital in
Queensland, 73.8% of the animals were infected with at least one
species of the parasitic protozoal genus Trypanosoma, the most common
of which was T. irwini.
Koalas can be subject to pathogens such as
which can cause keratoconjunctivitis, urinary tract infection, and
reproductive tract infection. Such infections are widespread on
the mainland, but absent in some island populations. The koala
retrovirus (KoRV) may cause koala immune deficiency syndrome (KIDS)
which is similar to
AIDS in humans. Prevalence of KoRV in koala
populations suggests a trend spreading from the north to the south of
Australia. Northern populations are completely infected, while some
southern populations (including
Kangaroo Island) are free.
The animals are vulnerable to bushfires due to their slow movements
and the flammability of eucalypt trees. The koala instinctively
seeks refuge in the higher branches, where it is vulnerable to intense
heat and flames. Bushfires also fragment the animal's habitat, which
restricts their movement and leads to population decline and loss of
Dehydration and overheating can also prove
fatal. Consequently, the koala is vulnerable to the effects of
climate change. Models of climate change in
Australia predict warmer
and drier climates, suggesting that the koala's range will shrink in
the east and south to more mesic habitats. Droughts also affect
the koala's well-being. For example, a severe drought in 1980 caused
Eucalyptus trees to lose their leaves. Subsequently, 63% of the
population in southwestern
Queensland died, especially young animals
that were excluded from prime feeding sites by older, dominant koalas,
and recovery of the population was slow. Later, this population
declined from an estimated mean population of 59,000 in 1995 to 11,600
in 2009, a reduction attributed largely to hotter and drier conditions
resulting from droughts in most years between 2002 and 2007.
Another predicted negative outcome of climate change is the effect of
elevations in atmospheric CO2 levels on the koala's food supply:
increases in CO2 cause
Eucalyptus trees to reduce protein and increase
tannin concentrations in their leaves, reducing the quality of the
George Perry's illustration in his 1810 Arcana was the first published
image of the koala.
The first written reference of the koala was recorded by John Price,
servant of John Hunter, the Governor of New South Wales. Price
encountered the "cullawine" on 26 January 1798, during an expedition
to the Blue Mountains, although his account was not published
until nearly a century later in Historical Records of Australia.
In 1802, French-born explorer
Francis Louis Barrallier
Francis Louis Barrallier encountered the
animal when his two Aboriginal guides, returning from a hunt, brought
back two koala feet they were intending to eat. Barrallier preserved
the appendages and sent them and his notes to Hunter's successor,
Philip Gidley King, who forwarded them to Joseph Banks. Similar to
Price, Barrallier's notes were not published until 1897. Reports
of the first capture of a live "koolah" appeared in The
in August 1803. Within a few weeks Flinders' astronomer, James
Inman, purchased a specimen pair for live shipment to
Joseph Banks in
England. They were described as 'somewhat larger than the Waumbut
(Wombat)'. These encounters helped provide the impetus for King to
commission the artist
John Lewin to paint watercolours of the animal.
Lewin painted three pictures, one of which was subsequently made into
a print that was reproduced in Georges Cuvier's The
(first published in 1827) and several European works on natural
Botanist Robert Brown was the first to write a detailed scientific
description of the koala in 1814, based on a female specimen captured
near what is now
Mount Kembla in the
Illawarra region of New South
Wales. Austrian botanical illustrator
Ferdinand Bauer drew the
animal's skull, throat, feet, and paws. Brown's work remained
unpublished and largely unnoticed, however, as his field books and
notes remained in his possession until his death, when they were
bequeathed to the British Museum (Natural History) in London. They
were not identified until 1994, while Bauer's koala watercolours were
not published until 1989. British surgeon
Everard Home included
details of the koala based on eyewitness accounts of William Paterson,
who had befriended Brown and Bauer during their stay in New South
Wales. Home, who in 1808 published his report in the journal
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, gave the animal
the scientific name Didelphis coola.
The first published image of the koala appeared in George Perry's
(1810) natural history work Arcana. Perry called it the "New
Holland Sloth" on account of its perceived similarities to the Central
and South American tree-living mammals of genus Bradypus. His disdain
for the koala, evident in his description of the animal, was typical
of the prevailing early 19th-century British attitude about the
primitiveness and oddity of Australian fauna:
"... 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
Natural history illustrator
John Gould popularised the koala with his
1863 work The Mammals of Australia.
Naturalist and popular artist
John Gould illustrated and described the
koala in his three-volume work The Mammals of
and introduced the species, as well as other members of Australia's
little-known faunal community, to the general British public.
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. 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
Nototherium, which had been discovered just a few years before.
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.
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. 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.
Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, visited the
Koala Park Sanctuary
Koala Park Sanctuary in
Sydney in 1934 and was "intensely interested in the bears". His
photograph, with Noel Burnet, the founder of the park, and a koala,
appeared in The
Sydney Morning Herald. After World War II, when
Australia increased and the animals were exported to zoos
overseas, the koala's international popularity rose. Several political
leaders and members of royal families had their pictures taken with
koalas, including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry, Crown Prince
Naruhito, Crown Princess Masako, Pope John Paul II, US President Bill
Clinton, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, South African President
Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and Russian President
Koala emblems and popular culture
Koala souvenir soft toys are popular with tourists
Amy and Oliver the bronze koalas (by Glenys Lindsay)
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. It benefited the national
tourism industry by over an estimated billion Australian dollars in
1998, a figure that has since grown. In 1997, half of 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.
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". Factors that contribute to the koala's enduring
popularity include its childlike body proportions and teddy bear-like
The koala is featured in the
Dreamtime stories and mythology of
indigenous Australians. The
Tharawal people believed that the animal
helped row the boat that brought them to the continent. Another
myth tells of how a tribe killed a koala and used its long intestines
to create a bridge for people from other parts of the world. This
narrative highlights the koala's status as a game animal and the
length of its intestines. Several stories tell of how the koala
lost its tail. In one, a kangaroo cuts it off to punish the koala for
being lazy and greedy. Tribes in both
Queensland and Victoria
regarded the koala as a wise animal and sought its advice.
Bidjara-speaking people credited the koala for turning barren lands
into lush forests. The animal is also depicted in rock carvings,
though not as much as some other species.
Early European settlers in
Australia considered the koala to be a
prowling sloth-like animal with a "fierce and menacing look". At
the beginning of the 20th century, the koala's reputation took a more
positive turn, largely due to its growing popularity and depiction in
several widely circulated children's stories. It is featured in
Ethel Pedley's 1899 book Dot and the Kangaroo, in which it is
portrayed as the "funny native bear". Artist Norman Lindsay
depicted a more anthropomorphic koala in
The Bulletin cartoons,
starting in 1904. This character also appeared as Bunyip Bluegum in
Lindsay's 1918 book The Magic Pudding. Perhaps the most famous
fictional koala is Blinky Bill. Created by
Dorothy Wall in 1933, the
character appeared in several books and has been the subject of films,
TV series, merchandise, and a 1986 environmental song by John
Williamson. The first Australian stamp featuring a koala was
issued by the Commonwealth in 1930. A television ad campaign for
Australia's national airline Qantas, starting in 1967 and running for
several decades, featured a live koala (voiced by Howard Morris), who
complained that too many tourists were coming to
concluded "I hate Qantas". The series has been ranked among the
greatest commercials of all time.
The song "Ode to a
Koala Bear" appears on the
B-side of the 1983 Paul
Michael Jackson duet single Say Say Say. A koala is the
main character in Hanna-Barbera's
The Kwicky Koala Show and Nippon
Animation's Noozles, both of which were animated cartoons of the early
1980s. Food products shaped like the koala include the Caramello Koala
chocolate bar and the bite-sized cookie snack Koala's March. Dadswells
Bridge in Victoria features a tourist complex shaped like a giant
koala, and the
Queensland Reds rugby team has a koala as its
Platinum Koala coin features the animal on the
reverse and Elizabeth II on the obverse.
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.
While the koala was previously classified as Least Concern on the Red
List, it was uplisted to Vulnerable in 2016. Australian policy
makers declined a 2009 proposal to include the koala in the
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. In
2012, the Australian government listed koala populations in Queensland
New South Wales
New South Wales as Vulnerable, because of a 40% population decline
in the former and a 33% decline in the latter. Populations in Victoria
Australia appear to be abundant; however, the Australian
Koala Foundation argues that the exclusion of Victorian populations
from protective measures is based on a misconception that the total
koala population is 200,000, whereas they believe it is probably less
Koala skins were widely traded early in the 20th century.
Koalas were hunted for food by Aboriginals. A common technique used to
capture the animals was to attach a loop of ropey bark to the end of a
long, thin pole, so as to form a noose. This would be used to snare an
animal high in a tree, beyond the reach of a climbing hunter; an
animal brought down this way would then be killed with a stone hand
axe or hunting stick (waddy). According to the customs of some
tribes, it was considered taboo to skin the animal, while other tribes
thought the animal's head had a special status, and saved them for
The koala was heavily hunted by European settlers in the early 20th
century, 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. Extensive cullings occurred in
1915, 1917, and again in 1919, when over one million koalas were
killed with guns, poisons, and nooses. The public outcry over these
cullings was probably the first wide-scale environmental issue that
rallied Australians. Novelist and social critic Vance Palmer, writing
in a letter to The Courier-Mail, expressed the popular sentiment:
"The shooting of our harmless and lovable native bear is nothing less
than barbarous ... No one has ever accused him of spoiling the
farmer's wheat, eating the squatter's grass, or even the spreading of
the prickly pear. There is no social vice that can be put down to his
account ... He affords no sport to the gun-man ... And he
has been almost blotted out already from some areas."
Despite the growing movement to protect native species, the poverty
brought about by the drought of 1926–28 led to the killing of
another 600,000 koalas during a one-month open season in August
1927. In 1934, Frederick Lewis, the Chief Inspector of Game in
Victoria, said that the once-abundant animal had been brought to near
extinction in that state, suggesting that only 500–1000
Scent gland on the chest of an adult male - Lone Pine
The first successful efforts at conserving the species were initiated
by the establishment of Brisbane's
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and
Koala Park Sanctuary
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. In 1934, David Fleay, curator of Australian
mammals at the Melbourne Zoo, established the first Australian faunal
enclosure at an Australian zoo, and featured the koala. This
arrangement allowed him to undertake a detailed study of its diet in
captivity. Fleay later continued his conservation efforts at
Healesville Sanctuary and the
David Fleay Wildlife Park.
Since 1870, koalas have been introduced to several coastal and
offshore islands, including
Kangaroo Island and French Island. Their
numbers have significantly increased, and since the islands are
not large enough to sustain such high koala numbers, overbrowsing has
become a problem. In the 1920s, Lewis initiated a program of
large-scale relocation and rehabilitation programs to transfer koalas
whose habitat had become fragmented or reduced to new regions, with
the intent of eventually returning them to their former range. For
example, in 1930–31, 165 koalas were translocated to Quail Island.
After a period of population growth, and subsequent overbrowsing of
gum trees on the island, about 1,300 animals were released into
mainland areas in 1944. The practice of translocating koalas became
commonplace; Victorian State manager Peter Menkorst estimated that
from 1923 to 2006, about 25,000 animals were translocated to more than
250 release sites across Victoria. Since the 1990s, government
agencies have tried to control their numbers by culling, but public
and international outcry has forced the use of translocation and
Road sign depicting a koala and a kangaroo
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. In 2000,
Australia ranked fifth in the world by
deforestation rates, having cleared 564,800 hectares (1,396,000
acres). The distribution of the koala has shrunk by more than 50%
since European arrival, largely due to fragmentation of habitat in
Queensland. The koala's "vulnerable" status in
Queensland and New
South Wales means that developers in these states must consider the
impacts on this species when making building applications. In
addition, 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.
Urban populations have distinct vulnerabilities: collisions with
vehicles and attacks by domestic dogs kill about 4,000 animals every
year. Injured koalas are often taken to wildlife hospitals and
rehabilitation centres. In a 30-year retrospective study
performed at a
New South Wales
New South Wales koala rehabilitation centre, trauma
(usually resulting from a motor vehicle accident or dog attack) was
found to be the most frequent cause of admission, followed by symptoms
of Chlamydia infection. Wildlife caretakers are issued special
permits, but must release the animals back into the wild when they are
either well enough or, in the case of joeys, old enough. As with most
native animals, the koala cannot legally be kept as a pet in Australia
or anywhere else.
Fauna of Australia
List of monotremes and marsupials of Australia
Sam (koala), a female koala known for being rescued during the Black
Saturday bushfires in 2009
Koala bear is a common term outside of Australia, though koalas are
marsupials, not bears.
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Wikispecies has information related to
Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Wikisource has the text of the 1920
Encyclopedia Americana article
Look up koala in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Arkive – images and movies of the koala
Animal Diversity Web –
Koala Crunch Time" – an ABC documentary (2012)
"Koalas deserve full protection"
Koala Code – a PBS Nature documentary (2012)
Koala (P. cinereus)
Common wombat (V. ursinus)
Southern hairy-nosed wombat
Southern hairy-nosed wombat (L. latifrons)
Northern hairy-nosed wombat
Northern hairy-nosed wombat (L. krefftii)
Phalangeriformes (Possums) (cont. below)
Talaud bear cuscus
Talaud bear cuscus (A. melanotis)
Sulawesi bear cuscus
Sulawesi bear cuscus (A. ursinus)
Cuscus (P. alexandrae)
Mountain cuscus (P. carmelitae)
Ground cuscus (P. gymnotis)
Eastern common cuscus
Eastern common cuscus (P. intercastellanus)
Woodlark cuscus (P. lullulae)
Blue-eyed cuscus (P. matabiru)
Telefomin cuscus (P. matanim)
Southern common cuscus
Southern common cuscus (P. mimicus)
Northern common cuscus
Northern common cuscus (P. orientalis)
Ornate cuscus (P. ornatus)
Rothschild's cuscus (P. rothschildi)
Silky cuscus (P. sericeus)
Stein's cuscus (P. vestitus)
Admiralty Island cuscus
Admiralty Island cuscus (S. kraemeri)
Common spotted cuscus
Common spotted cuscus (S. maculatus)
Waigeou cuscus (S. papuensis)
Black-spotted cuscus (S. rufoniger)
Blue-eyed spotted cuscus
Blue-eyed spotted cuscus (S. wilsoni)
Sulawesi dwarf cuscus
Sulawesi dwarf cuscus (S. celebensis)
Banggai cuscus (S. pelegensis)
Northern brushtail possum
Northern brushtail possum (T. arnhemensis)
Short-eared possum (T. caninus)
Mountain brushtail possum
Mountain brushtail possum (T. cunninghami)
Coppery brushtail possum
Coppery brushtail possum (T. johnstonii)
Common brushtail possum
Common brushtail possum (T. vulpecula)
Scaly-tailed possum (W. squamicaudata)
Mountain pygmy possum
Mountain pygmy possum (B. parvus)
Long-tailed pygmy possum
Long-tailed pygmy possum (C. caudatus)
Southwestern pygmy possum
Southwestern pygmy possum (C. concinnus)
Tasmanian pygmy possum
Tasmanian pygmy possum (C. lepidus)
Eastern pygmy possum
Eastern pygmy possum (C. nanus)
Phalangeriformes (Possums) (cont. above)
Honey possum (T. rostratus)
Great-tailed triok (D. megalura)
Long-fingered triok (D. palpator)
Tate's triok (D. tatei)
Striped possum (D. trivirgata)
Leadbeater's possum (G. leadbeateri)
Northern glider (P. abidi)
Yellow-bellied glider (P. australis)
Biak glider (P. biacensis)
Sugar glider (P. breviceps)
Mahogany glider (P. gracilis)
Squirrel glider (P. norfolcensis)
Lemur-like ringtail possum
Lemur-like ringtail possum (H. lemuroides)
Greater glider (P. volans)
Rock-haunting ringtail possum
Rock-haunting ringtail possum (P. dahli)
Common ringtail possum
Common ringtail possum (P. peregrinus)
Lowland ringtail possum
Lowland ringtail possum (P. canescens)
Weyland ringtail possum
Weyland ringtail possum (P. caroli)
Cinereus ringtail possum
Cinereus ringtail possum (P. cinereus)
Painted ringtail possum
Painted ringtail possum (P. forbesi)
Herbert River ringtail possum
Herbert River ringtail possum (P. herbertensis)
Masked ringtail possum
Masked ringtail possum (P. larvatus)
Pygmy ringtail possum
Pygmy ringtail possum (P. mayeri)
Vogelkop ringtail possum
Vogelkop ringtail possum (P. schlegeli)
D'Albertis' ringtail possum
D'Albertis' ringtail possum (P. albertisii)
Green ringtail possum
Green ringtail possum (P. archeri)
Plush-coated ringtail possum
Plush-coated ringtail possum (P. corinnae)
Reclusive ringtail possum
Reclusive ringtail possum (P. coronatus)
Coppery ringtail possum
Coppery ringtail possum (P. cupreus)
Feathertail glider (A. pygmaeus)
Feather-tailed possum (D. pennatus)
Macropodiformes (cont. below)
Banded hare-wallaby (L. fasciatus)
Grizzled tree-kangaroo (D. inustus)
Lumholtz's tree-kangaroo (D. lumholtzi)
Bennett's tree-kangaroo (D. bennettianus)
Ursine tree-kangaroo (D. ursinus)
Matschie's tree-kangaroo (D. matschiei)
Doria's tree-kangaroo (D. dorianus)
Ifola tree-kangaroo (D. notatus)
Goodfellow's tree-kangaroo (D. goodfellowi)
Lowlands tree-kangaroo (D. spadix)
Golden-mantled tree-kangaroo (D. pulcherrimus)
Seri's tree-kangaroo (D. stellarum)
Dingiso (D. mbaiso)
Tenkile (D. scottae)
Brown dorcopsis (D. muelleri)
White-striped dorcopsis (D. hageni)
Black dorcopsis (D. atrata)
Gray dorcopsis (D. luctuosa)
Small dorcopsis (D. vanheurni)
Macleay's dorcopsis (D. macleayi)
Spectacled hare-wallaby (L. conspicillatus)
Rufous hare-wallaby (L. hirsutus)
Agile wallaby (M. agilis)
Black-striped wallaby (M. dorsalis)
Tammar wallaby (M. eugenii)
Western brush wallaby
Western brush wallaby (M. irma)
Parma wallaby (M. parma)
Pretty-faced wallaby (M. parryi)
Red-necked wallaby (M. rufogriseus)
Antilopine kangaroo (M. antilopinus)
Black wallaroo (M. bernardus)
Common wallaroo (M. robustus)
Red kangaroo (M. rufus)
Western grey kangaroo
Western grey kangaroo (M. fuliginosus)
Eastern grey kangaroo
Eastern grey kangaroo (M. giganteus)
Bridled nail-tail wallaby
Bridled nail-tail wallaby (O. fraenata)
Northern nail-tail wallaby
Northern nail-tail wallaby (O. unguifera)
P. brachyotis species-group:
Short-eared rock-wallaby (P. brachyotis)
Wilkins' rock-wallaby (P. wilkinsi)
Monjon (P. burbidgei)
Nabarlek (P. concinna)
P. xanthopus species-group:
Proserpine rock-wallaby (P. persephone)
Rothschild's rock-wallaby (P. rothschildi)
Yellow-footed rock-wallaby (P. xanthopus)
P. lateralis/penicillata species-group:
Allied rock-wallaby (P.
Cape York rock-wallaby
Cape York rock-wallaby (P. coenensis)
Godman's rock-wallaby (P. godmani)
Herbert's rock-wallaby (P. herberti)
Unadorned rock-wallaby (P. inornata)
Black-flanked rock-wallaby (P. lateralis)
Mareeba rock-wallaby (P. mareeba)
Brush-tailed rock-wallaby (P. penicillata)
Purple-necked rock-wallaby (P. purpureicollis)
Mount Claro rock-wallaby
Mount Claro rock-wallaby (P. sharmani)
Quokka (S. brachyurus)
Tasmanian pademelon (T. billardierii)
Brown's pademelon (T. browni)
Dusky pademelon (T. brunii)
Calaby's pademelon (T. calabyi)
Mountain pademelon (T. lanatus)
Red-legged pademelon (T. stigmatica)
Red-necked pademelon (T. thetis)
Swamp wallaby (W. bicolor)
Macropodiformes (cont. above)
Rufous rat-kangaroo (A. rufescens)
Eastern bettong (B. gaimardi)
Boodie (B. lesueur)
Woylie (B. penicillata)
Northern bettong (B. tropica)
Long-footed potoroo (P. longipes)
Long-nosed potoroo (P. tridactylus)
Gilbert's potoroo (. gilbertii)
Musky rat-kangaroo (H. moschatus)