Koala facts

15 Koala Facts Introducing Australia's Beloved Marsupial

Koalas spend most of their lives in trees, making them true arboreal animals. Found primarily in the eucalyptus forests of Australia, they mainly eat toxic eucalyptus leaves. Alongside their diet, Koalas possess other fascinating and distinct features, including their unique communication skills. Read on through our Koala facts as we uncover this beautiful marsupial's unique biology, habitat, and cultural importance. Furthermore, we'll also shed light on the threats they face and the conservation efforts striving to protect them.

Koalas have won countless hearts worldwide with their adorable looks and intriguing behaviors. Often misnamed "Koala Bears" due to their resemblance to teddy bears, Koalas are not bears at all. Sadly, these lovable creatures face numerous challenges, including habitat loss, climate change, and disease.

15 Koala facts you might not know.

Koala on a tree
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

1. Koalas are not bears!

Despite their scientific name, Phascolarctos cinereus, which means "ash-colored pouched bear" in Latin, Koalas are not bears. Their round, fluffy bodies and large fuzzy ears (typical features of bears) may contribute to this misconception, but Koalas are actually marsupials native to Australia.

Marsupials, a distinct group from bears, are characterized by giving birth to underdeveloped young that continue their growth and development inside the mother's pouch. Koalas exhibit this reproductive behavior like their marsupial relatives, differentiating them from bears.

Furthermore, as the only surviving member of the family Phascolarctidae, their closest relative is the common Wombat. This is why they also share more similarities with closely related Australian animals like Kangaroos and Wallabies.

A closer look at the Koala's diet and biological features reveals even more differences. For instance, Koalas are strictly herbivores, while bears are omnivores with diverse food sources. Additionally, Koalas have two opposable thumbs on each front paw, whereas bears have five non-opposable digits.

2. They thrive in eastern and southeastern Australia.

Wild Koalas are commonly found in eastern and southeastern Australia's highly diverse eucalyptus forests. Most home ranges (a patch of the forest inhabited by a Koala) are in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

They prefer living on the tallest trees as they provide better protection from predators and a more comfortable environment for resting. However, habitat fragmentation due to urbanization and agriculture threatens Koalas and their ecosystems4. Preserving and restoring these eucalyptus forests is essential for Koalas' survival and maintaining Australia's distinctive wildlife.

3. Their unique digestive system breaks down toxic eucalyptus leaves.

Koala eating
Photo by Carrol Porra on Unsplash

Koalas have ingeniously adapted to the challenges posed by their primary food source, eucalyptus. Most creatures find these leaves unpalatable and dangerous due to their high toxin content and low nutritional value. However, these unique mammals thrive on this toxic eucalyptus diet5, thanks to their specialized digestive system.

Their Caecum, an extended pouch-like section in the digestive tract, spans approximately 6.5 feet long and functions as a fermentation chamber. This is where bacteria break down the fibrous plant material koalas eat, which enables them to extract the maximum amount of nutrients and water from their limited diet.

Complementing the Caecum, Koalas' highly efficient liver processes and neutralizes toxic compounds in the leaves, such as Terpenoids and Phenolics9. Their mouths are also modified, containing sharp incisors and curved molars, perfect for snipping and grinding the tough eucalyptus leaves.

4. Koalas are picky eaters.

Koalas are actually picky when it comes to their food. These fussy eaters choose the freshest and most nutritious leaves from select eucalyptus species. Australia is home to over 600 species of eucalyptus trees, but Koalas only eat from 30 species.

They select these species based on water content and nutritional value6, skillfully identifying the most beneficial leaves—even picking the best branches within a single tree!

In addition, an adult Koala eats at most 2.5 pounds of leaves daily. And they spend around 4-6 hours a day eating, ensuring they consume enough leaves to meet their nutritional and energy needs.

5. They communicate through grunts and snores.

These interesting creatures exhibit various vocalizations essential for their social interactions and communication. These captivating sounds encompass grunts, snores, "bellows," and high-pitched squeaks.

Males primarily produce grunts to establish territory and assert dominance within their community. In contrast, the deep, rumbling, bellowing vocalizations help attract potential mates and deter rivals. Interestingly, these sounds' pitch, duration, and intensity vary from one Koala to another.

Furthermore, their unique vocal anatomy allows them to create such distinct sounds. Koalas possess a specialized vocal organ called the "velar vocal folds," their specialized vocal tract enables them to generate low-frequency bellows unusual for an animal of their size.

This capacity to communicate through low-frequency sounds lets Koalas transmit messages across the Koala habitat, with some vocalizations audible up to a kilometer away! 

According to some researchers, Koalas might even recognize individual voices within their community2, suggesting a higher level of social awareness than previously assumed.

6. Opposable thumbs help them grip branches and climb trees.

Koala paw
Photo by Kerin Gedge on Unsplash

As tree-dwelling marsupials, Koalas can expertly navigate through the vast forests of Eastern Australia thanks to their unique anatomy. Their special anatomical features let them reach the highest and most tender leaves. Among their most impressive features are the opposable thumbs on their front paws, which play a vital role in securely gripping branches and climbing trees easily.

In addition to their opposable thumbs, they have strong limbs and curved claws that further enhance their climbing abilities. Their hind paws are even equipped with one opposable toe, which helps them grip branches as they climb up and down trees.

7. Baby koalas, or "joeys," grow and develop inside their mother's pouch.

An infant Koala spends the initial stages of its life nestled within its mother's pouch. Born after a gestation period of around 33-35 days, baby Koalas are only 2 centimeters long and weigh less than a gram. Their bodies are hairless, with their eyes and ears still developing. However, their inborn sense of touch and smell is strong enough to guide them to the pouch, where they latch onto one of the two teats.

The baby Koala relies on its mother's milk for nourishment and growth. Over six months, the joey's eyes open, its ears form, and a layer of fur appears. As the young Koala gains strength, it begins exploring its surroundings and tentatively tastes eucalyptus leaves, always under its mother's watchful eye.

After reaching 12 months old, the joey leaves the safety of the pouch and is ready to establish its own territory within the home ranges8.

8. Female Koalas typically give birth to one joey per year.

Koala and joey
Photo by Alex Eckermann on Unsplash

Female koalas reach sexual maturity at around 2-3 years and usually give birth to one joey per year. Their short breeding season, from September to March, with a peak in December, contributes to this low reproductive rate. During this period, male koalas compete for access to females, and the dominant ones often father multiple joeys in a single season.

The Marsupials have a short gestation period of about 34-36 days. After this time, a tiny, underdeveloped Joey is born. The bean-sized baby instinctively crawls into its mother's pouch and attaches to a teat for around six months. However, as a female Koala grows older, its fertility declines. And it usually stops reproducing by the age of 12-15 years.

9. Koalas are heavy sleepers. They sleep for up to 18-20 hours daily.

Koala sleeping
Photo by Miranda Garside on Unsplash

Koalas sleep for ages! You can find them snoozing on tree forks for a staggering 18 to 20 hours each day10. This intriguing behavior primarily stems from their highly specialized diet, which offers limited nutritional value and energy. Consequently, energy conservation becomes vital for these creatures' survival.

These mammals invest significant time and energy in the digestive process to break down the fibrous eucalyptus leaves, further contributing to their long sleep schedule. In order to conserve more energy, they adopt a curled and compact body position while sleeping, which also helps retain body heat.

When awake, these primarily nocturnal animals engage in various activities, such as feeding, grooming, or socializing within their established territory. Peak activity occurs during the night and early morning hours.

10. Young and female koalas have a slight eucalyptus scent, which acts as a natural insect repellent.

Joeys and adult females give off a subtle eucalyptus scent vital to their survival. Eucalyptus leaves contain oil compounds that seep into their fur. The oil produces an odor that serves as a natural insect repellent, keeping pesky mosquitoes and flies at bay.

This natural defense helps shield them from insect-borne diseases, such as infections or parasites. Furthermore, it also prevents bacterial infection and protects a Koala from insects.

11. Koala means no water.

The word "Koala" originates from the indigenous Dharug language, specifically the term "gula" or "koola," which means "no water." This name highlights the koala's intriguing ability to obtain the most hydration from its diet.

The leaves of the Eucalyptus trees in the Australian bush contain about 50% water. Using their leathery nose and keen sense of smell, they pick the freshest and most nutritious leaves. Then, their specialized cheek teeth efficiently grind these fibrous leaves into a fine paste for easy water and nutrient extraction.

This adaptability behavior eliminates the need to extract water from external sources and allows them to thrive in Australia's diverse ecosystem where water can be scarce.

12. They use a unique chest scent gland for communication.

Koalas, being solitary animals, depend on their sense of smell for communication. They possess a special scent gland known as the "sternal gland" on their chest, which is crucial for sharing essential information about their identity1.

This gland produces a strong-smelling, oily substance that they use to mark their territory and make their presence known. By rubbing their chest on trees and branches, they create a scent trail that other Koalas smell, allowing them to identify the age, sex, and social status of the Koala who left the mark.

The sternal gland's function in communication is particularly important among male Koalas, especially during mating season. Males with larger glands emit stronger, more potent scents, which are seen as more dominant and attractive to potential female mates. This scent marking also helps maintain social order and prevent conflicts over territory. Interestingly, female Koalas might also use their sternal gland to communicate their reproductive status, signaling to males whether they are open to mating.

Incorporating scent marking into their social interactions, these mammals have crafted an efficient and effective method for sharing vital information without needing risky or energy-consuming physical encounters.

13. When threatened, they can produce a loud, aggressive growl.

Koala growl
Photo by Pascal Mauerhofer on Unsplash

Koalas boast a unique vocal structure, allowing them to emit a deep, resonant growl, or "bellow," when they feel threatened. This vocalization serves a crucial purpose in defending themselves against predators and other dangers.

Males primarily use the loud, aggressive growl during mating. However, females may also growl to protect their joeys or when they feel threatened. They can also resort to hissing, snarling, or other aggressive vocalizations to deter potential attackers.

The low frequency of the growl, reaching up to 90 decibels, travels through dense forests and also allows them to warn other Koalas of the potential threat. A specialized part of their vocal anatomy, called the laryngeal velum, produces these powerful sounds.

14. Habitat loss, climate change, and disease threaten their "vulnerable" conservation status.

koala habitat
Photo by Ellena McGuinness on Unsplash

These species grapple with various challenges contributing to their vulnerable conservation status. The destruction and fragmentation of Koala habitat due to rapid urbanization, agricultural expansion, and logging activities continue to pose a major threat.

Consequently, they face difficulties finding suitable habitats with enough food, leading to heightened competition, stress, and declining reproduction rates. Fragmented habitats also expose them to predators and require crossing perilous landscapes, increasing the risk of injury or death from encounters with vehicles or domestic animals.

Climate change and diseases present another set of challenges for these endangered species. Rising temperatures and frequent droughts limit food availability and reduce the leaves' moisture content, making it harder for these animals to stay hydrated7.

Additionally, bushfires fueled by extreme weather events can devastate entire habitats and harm animals. When it comes to diseases, Koalas face significant threats from chlamydia, Koala retrovirus, and various forms of cancer.

These diseases can cause severe health issues like blindness and infertility or even prove fatal. Koala retrovirus, in particular, weakens their immune system, making them more susceptible to other diseases and infections. The emotional toll of these combined challenges on koalas is immense, highlighting the urgency of conservation efforts to protect these beloved Australian marsupials.

15. Tree planting initiatives and wildlife corridors help protect Koalas and their habitats.

Last, in our list of koala facts, we explore their conservation. Deforestation and urbanization have severely impacted koala populations in Australia, making tree-planting initiatives and wildlife corridors crucial for their survival3. Restoring and expanding Koala habitats facilitates access to food, water, shelter, and mates, thereby promoting genetic diversity and population health.

At the heart of these initiatives are eucalyptus tree planting and the creation of safe passages for Koalas to move between fragmented habitats. For instance, Queensland's "Koala Corridor" project connects isolated habitats, enabling koalas to traverse the landscape without encountering dangerous roads or developed land. Similarly, the proposed "Great Koala National Park" in New South Wales aims to establish a vast, interconnected habitat to protect the species from further losing their homes.

Organizations like the Australian Koala Foundation, WWF Australia, and Friends of the Koala lead tree-planting initiatives that benefit koalas and help combat climate change. By planting trees, we lessen atmospheric carbon dioxide and provide essential environmental benefits, such as water purification and erosion control.

Ensuring the survival of koalas and the environment's health, these efforts hold immense importance for both people and wildlife.

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with K.

Pin Me:
Pin Image Portrait 15 Koala Facts Introducing Australia's Beloved Marsupial
1

Tobey, J. R., Nute, T. R., & Bercovitch, F. B. (2009). Age and seasonal changes in the semiochemicals of the sternal gland secretions of male koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus)Australian Journal of Zoology57(2), 111-118.

2

Charlton, B. D., Ellis, W. A., McKinnon, A. J., Brumm, J., Nilsson, K., & Fitch, W. T. (2011). Perception of male caller identity in koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus): acoustic analysis and playback experimentsPLoS One6(5), e20329.

3

Clive McAlpine, Daniel Lunney, Alistair Melzer, Peter Menkhorst, Stephen Phillips, David Phalen, William Ellis, William Foley, Greg Baxter, Deidre de Villiers, Rodney Kavanagh, Christine Adams-Hosking, Charles Todd, Desley Whisson, Robyn Molsher, Michele Walter, Ivan Lawler, Robert Close,
Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges, Biological Conservation, Volume 192, 2015, Pages 226-236, ISSN 0006-3207,

4

Daniel Lunney, Mathew S. Crowther, Ian Wallis, William J. Foley, John Lemon, Rob Wheeler, George Madani, Corinna Orscheg, Joanna E. Griffith, Mark Krockenberger, Melissa Retamales, Eleanor Stalenberg, 2012. "Koalas and climate change: a case study on the Liverpool Plains, north-west New South Wales", Wildlife and Climate Change: Towards robust conservation strategies for Australian fauna, Daniel Lunney, Hutchings Pat

5

Moore, Benjamin & Foley, William. (2000). A review of feeding and diet selection in koalas (Phascolarctos Cinereus). Australian Journal of Zoology. 48. 10.1071/ZO99034.

6

Van Huis, A., Van Itterbeeck, J., Klunder, H., Mertens, E., Halloran, A., Muir, G., & Vantomme, P. (2013). Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security (No. 171). FAO forestry paper. 

7

Adams-Hosking Christine, Grantham Hedley S., Rhodes Jonathan R., McAlpine Clive, Moss Patrick T. (2011) Modelling climate-change-induced shifts in the distribution of the koalaWildlife Research 38, 122-130.

8

Smith, M. J. W. R. (1979). Notes on reproduction and growth in the koala, Phascolarctos cinereus (Goldfuss). Wildlife Research6(1), 5-12.

9

Moore, B. D., Foley, W. J., Wallis, I. R., Cowling, A., & Handasyde, K. A. (2005). Eucalyptus foliar chemistry explains selective feeding by koalasBiology letters1(1), 64–67.

10

Martin, R., & Handasyde, K. A. (1999). The koala: natural history, conservation and management. UNSW press.

Photo by Stefano Borghi on Unsplash
Sign Up for Updates
SIGN UP
TRVST
ABOUT
 · 
THE TEAM
 · 
CONTACT
 · 
PRIVACY
 · 
COOKIES
 · 
T&Cs
Copyright © 2023 TRVST LTD. All Rights Reserved
US Flag
100 North Point Center E, Ste 125 #A262, Alpharetta, GA 30022, USA.
UK Flag
7 Bell Yard, London, WC2A 2JR, United Kingdom.
chevron-upchevron-down