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.)

Kangaroos and Wallabies (And What the Heck is a Wallaroo?)

On my last trip to Australia, on a drive from Sydney across the Blue Mountains to the Jenolan Caves, I spotted what I thought was a kangaroo as we passed through acres and acres of tree farm. My friend slowed the car so we could get a closer look. “No,” he said, “that’s a wallaby.”

The author petting a kangaroo (or is that a wallaby) in Australia.

From far away, to the uneducated eye, kangaroos and wallabies look much alike (as do wallaroos, which are sometimes simply called kangaroos). These animals all belong to a family of marsupials called macropods, which are characterized by their large hind legs and feet (macropod means “big foot”) and long, muscular tails that they use for balance. Not all macropods hop, but kangaroos and wallabies do; they can store elastic energy in their tendons and use that energy to literally put a spring in their steps.

Generally, kangaroos are the largest species of macropods. They can grow up to eight feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. They usually live in open areas, where they can use their big, strong legs to reach great speeds. Red kangaroos, for example, can hop up to 35 miles per hour. The smaller wallabies, meanwhile, are more suited to forest habitats. The animals also differ in coloring and in their teeth, through I wouldn’t recommend getting close enough to check. (There is only one reported case of a human being killed by a kangaroo, but several people have been severely mauled by the animals.)

Before Europeans colonized Australia, there were some 53 species of macropods on the continent. Since then, six have become extinct and another 11 reduced in population size. The smallest species and species with specific habitat requirements and smaller ranges were the most affected, less able to recover from predation and habitat destruction. Meanwhile, some of the largest species have grown so numerous they are considered pests–during dry times they will compete with sheep and other livestock for feed and water, and they are involved in hundreds of car crashes each year. Like deer here in the United States, hunting is often encouraged to control the kangaroo population (the meat is exported to dozens of countries around the world).

I got a closer look at macropods a week into that Australia trip, on a day tour through the Daintree rainforest, north of Cairns. Next door to the cafe where we stopped for lunch someone was keeping a couple wallabies and a kangaroo in a fenced in part of their yard. The animals were old and blind and friendly, happy to let us pet them in exchange for carrots and other fresh veggies.

When I got back to Cairns that evening, and I walked from restaurant to restaurant looking at the menus and trying to decide what to eat, I quickly decided that I had to decline the “taste of Australia” dish offered by many of those places. Those plates included a number of Australian animals, including crocodile, emu and sometimes camel. Kangaroo was also one of those meats and, after my experience with the animals, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat one, pest or not.