Koalas are popular because of their cute appearance. But these animals also have many traits that make them distinct, as well as adorable. Koalas are native to eastern Australia, where they enjoy the climate and abundance of eucalyptus trees. Although you won’t see a koala in the wild outside of Australia, many zoos, including the San Diego Zoo, count these furry creatures among their residents.
Koalas are Marsupials
Koalas aren't actually bears, at all. They're part of a class of mammal called marsupials, which means female koalas have pouches on their bellies. When koalas give birth to their young, called joeys, the babies are only about 2 centimeters long. The joey is blind and furless as it climbs into his mother's pouch, where he'll live for six or seven months, drinking milk and seeking shelter in the safe, warm pocket. The joey will then emerge to begin eating eucalyptus leaves and riding on his mother's back. Other animals, like kangaroos and opossums, also have pouches, but the koala's pouch is unique because it faces down, opening towards the animal's hind legs, instead of facing upwards.
Koalas are Nocturnal
Koalas are nocturnal, meaning that they sleep during the day and wake at night. While this classification is accurate, it doesn't tell the whole story of the koala's unusual sleeping habits. Unlike other nocturnal mammals, koalas sleep roughly 18 to 20 hours a day. This great need for rest comes from their eucalyptus-only diet. Koalas must consume and digest huge quantities of eucalyptus leaves to absorb enough nutrients. They expend large amounts of energy digesting their meals, making koalas move more slowly than other animals, and giving them their need for long naps.
Koalas Have an Unusual Diet
The eucalyptus tree is the koala's only source of food and shelter. Although the koala eats only eucalyptus leaves, there are over 600 varieties of this common Australian tree, giving the hungry koala some options. Koalas eat 1 to 1.5 pounds of leaves every day. They must eat such a large amount to make sure they get the right levels of nutrition and fiber from the leaves. Besides making the koalas sleepy and slow-moving, their large diet is also the reason for a special digestive organ called the caecum. Unlike other animals, koala's have an unusually long digestive track to help them process so many leaves and extract the fiber they need to survive.
Koalas are a Threatened Species
Sadly, koalas are at risk from habitat destruction. In Australia, eucalyptus forests are being cleared to make way for construction and provide building materials. This leaves the koalas without their usual source of food and shelter. On the ground, the slow-moving koala is vulnerable to predators, as well as cars and even dogs. Thankfully, organizations such as the Australian Koala Foundation are working to save this fascinating animal.
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Chloe Newkirk is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been a freelance writer for over five years, and written for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. Her areas of expertise include crafts, pop culture, the arts, pets, American history and food.