The Koala: The Bear That’s Not A Bear

If you’ve watched anything on BBC America in the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen the commercial promoting tourism to Australia. One scene (at 0:39 in this video) has had me thinking. A woman sings, holding a koala, “There’s nothing like this bear.” And then a man behind her comments, “That’s not a bear.”

A koala at Sydney Wildlife World (photo by Sarah Zielinski)

Indeed, koalas, despite being sometimes called koala bears, are not bears. They are marsupials and more closely related to kangaroos and wombats than grizzlies and polar bears. But the first European settlers on the continent, some 200 years ago, knew nothing about marsupials at the time. They saw a fuzzy animal that kind of looked like a bear, so they named it a bear. (“Koala” likely derives from an aboriginal word that means “no drink.” The animals get much of their moisture from the leaves they eat, as well as from dew and rain, so they’re not often seen directly drinking water.)

Koalas, once prized for their fur, were nearly hunted to extinction in early 20th century but the species has largely recovered. Estimates of population size range from 80,000 to hundreds of thousands of animals, and the IUCN lists them as a species of least concern. That said, koalas have been threatened in recent years by urbanization, habitat destruction, and outbreaks of chlamydia.

Like sloths, koalas have a low metabolic rate and a low activity level to match–they’ll spend 16 to 18 hours a day motionless, mostly sleeping. Most of the rest of the time they’re eating eucalyptus leaves (or those of a few other tree species), slowly chewing them into a digestible paste.

An individual koala may appear to be a solitary creature, but he’s actually part of a larger koala society. Each animal has its own territory that overlaps with that of his neighbors’. If a koala dies, his buddies won’t take over his territory for a year, when his markings have faded away.

And koalas are noisier than they appear in zoos–males bellow to establish dominance and find other koalas, females bellow as part of sexual behavior, and mothers and babies make clicking, squeaking, and murmuring noises when communicating with each other. All koalas, too, will make a cry like a screaming baby when under stress.

Despite their cuteness, koalas are not pets. Not only is it illegal to own a pet koala, but even if you had one, their diet of eucalyptus would be difficult to provide on a regular basis and a hungry koala is a vicious koala. (One koala proved mean enough to beat off a group of thieves who were trying to steal if from a zoo.)