The koala's Latin name is Phascolarctos, meaning pouched bear. Woolly, snub-nosed and round-eared, its bear-like appearance is deceptive. In fact, the koala is a unique marsupial. (A marsupial is characterized as an animal which bears young still in an embryonic state, rearing them for long periods of time in a pouch on its abdomen. Other members of the family include kangaroos and wallabies, rat kangaroos, wombats and opossums.) An adult male koala grows to about two-and-a-half feet tall and weighs about 30 pounds.
Diet: The koala, a nocturnal eater, exists by feeding solely on the oily leaves of certain species of smooth-barked Eucalyptus trees. A unique digestive system allows it to consume leaves which are poisonous to other animals (except for very young leaves--the poison in them is so concentrated, even koalas cannot tolerate it). They consume up to two-and-a-half pounds of eucalyptus per night.
Reproduction: The koala has a low birth rate. After a gestation period of 32 to 35 days, most females bear one baby every other year. The cub is born in a hairless, embryonic state and its first journey is from the birth canal to its mother's pouch, where-in lie the mother's nipples. For the next six months, development continues outside the mother's body, but within her pouch; then, for the following three months, the baby explores the larger world outside the pouch, staying close to its mother, often riding on her back.
The pouch itself is unique among the marsupials as it is backward-directed, seemingly inappropriate in an animal that is normally oriented head-up on a tree trunk. However, the babies do not fall to the ground because they instinctively hold on tight with their mouths and are supported by maternal muscles which rim the door to the pouch.
Once a koala cub is weaned, it seldom--if ever--needs to drink again: koala means "no drink" in the Aboriginal language.
Status: The extensive logging, trapping and epidemics which accompanied colonial settlement of Australia once threatened koalas with near extinction in the 1930s. Today, conservationists, recognizing the appeal and rare qualities of the koala, have established a number of reserves for koalas and other unique wildlife throughout Australia. The most concentrated populations are now in eastern Queensland. Along with the kangaroo, the koala has become a national Australian symbol.
However, their highly specialized, single-plant diet makes them extremely vulnerable--especially if the pressures of civilization threaten the sole source of nourishment in their natural habitats. Also, their delicately-balanced body chemistry makes them unusually susceptible to the viruses and bacteria which European peoples and animals brought with them in colonial days.
In recent years, a strong venereal disease has been threatening the koala's reproductive capability. Babies have been born dead, deformed, have survived only briefly, or the affected females have become barren. Scientists are continuing to seek a cure for this disease as well as endeavoring to locate and isolate healthy animals to establish sounder breeding groups.