They have thick fur, smell like cough drops, and sleep 18 hours per day.
Long before we started going loopy for lemurs, slow lorises, and sloths, we had koalas — the original poster children for cute and cuddly animals.
Although most people know koalas live in Australia and eat eucalyptus leaves, there’s so much more to know. Here’s the lowdown on these iconic marsupials from Down Under.
1. They Are Not Bears
Although some people mistakenly refer to them as koala “bears,” koalas are marsupials, not placental mammals like bears. They are not closely related to bears and have nothing to do with them, as there are no native bears in Australia. The confusion apparently began with English-speaking settlers in Australia who thought the marsupials resembled bears.
2. They Are Not Big Water Drinkers
Koalas get most of their water from eucalyptus leaves. Freder/Getty Images
The word “koala” is thought to have come from a word meaning “no drink” in one of the Aboriginal languages, according to the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF). Although koalas do drink water on occasion, most of their hydration requirements are fulfilled by the moisture they get from eating eucalyptus leaves.
3. They Are Eucalyptus-Scented
Koalas sometimes dabble in other trees, but their favorite food by far is eucalyptus. Logorilla/Getty Images
Koalas eat about 2.5 pounds (1.1 kilograms) of eucalyptus leaves a day. They eat so many eucalyptus leaves, in fact, that they take on the fragrance of the tree’s oil … and end up smelling like cough drops. The scent varies from individual to individual, but the AKF describes it as “certainly a pleasant eucalyptus smell.”
4. Their Newborns Are the Size of Jelly Beans
A newborn koala, known as a joey, is roughly the size of a jelly bean. At this point, it will be a while before it looks very fuzzy or masters that distinctive koala charisma. Joeys are born blind, earless, and without fur, measuring about 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) long and weighing 0.03 ounces (1 gram).
5. Joeys Ease Into Life Outside the Pouch
After birth, a mother koala will carry the jelly-bean baby in her pouch for about six months. After it emerges, the newborn clings to its mother’s back or belly until it is around a year old. Once a young koala is about six or seven months old, the mother helps her joey wean from milk to eucalyptus leaves.
6. Koalas Are Great Sleepers
This baby joey koala sleeps while cuddling with its mother. Kylie Ellway/Shutterstock
Tucked into trees, koalas can sleep for 18 to 22 hours per day. They need a lot of rest to help them conserve energy, explains the AKF, because their diet requires a lot of energy to digest. Eucalyptus leaves contain toxins, high fiber, and not much nutrition, so koalas conserve energy by sleeping to give their bodies more time to process their food.
7. They Have Extra Thick Fur
Koalas may look soft and cuddly, but to the touch, not so much. They have a thick, woolly fur that protects them from both heat and cold and also helps to repel water. In fact, their fur is the thickest of all marsupials.
8. They Live for About a Decade
In ideal conditions in the wild, male koalas live to about the age of 10. Female koalas may live a few years longer, with an average life span of about 12 years. During that time, a female koala may produce five or six offspring. For koalas living in less suitable habitats, such as near a highway or housing development, life expectancy is likely closer to two or three years, according to the AKF.
9. They Are Vulnerable to Extinction
A koala named Pete recuperates at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in 2019 after being rescued from a bushfire. Nathan Edwards/Getty Images
Koalas are endemic to Australia, which means they exist nowhere else in the wild. Australia was once home to millions of wild koalas, but the popularity of their sturdy fur resulted in massive koala hunting in the 1920s and ’30s, leading to a major decline in their numbers.
Although they are now legally protected, wild koalas still face a variety of threats, including habitat destruction, road traffic, and attacks by dogs. They are also increasingly at risk from bushfires worsened by climate change, especially since eucalyptus trees are so flammable they’re sometimes called “gasoline trees.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists koalas as “vulnerable” with decreasing numbers, estimating in 2014 that between 100,000 and 500,000 adults exist in the wild. In 2019, however, the AKF suggested the koala is “functionally extinct.” The group believes there are no more than 80,000 koalas remaining in Australia, and possibly as few as 43,000.
Save the Koalas
If you live in a part of Australia with koalas, always watch your speed and drive carefully to avoid hitting a koala, especially at night.
Keep dogs and cats indoors at night, and if you have a swimming pool, place a sturdy rope at the edge, tied to a tree or post, to help any koalas that fall in.
Consider planting food trees for koalas. The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) offers a list of trees favored by koalas in various parts of their range.
If you don’t live near koalas, you can still help by supporting conservation groups such as AKF, Koala Hospital, and Friends of the Koala, or simply by reducing your own carbon footprint and promoting climate action however you can.