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Australian animals: the koala

Australian Reptile Park's General Manager & Director, Tim Faulkner has answered a few of our questions about the iconic Australian animal.

By Jessica Wilkinson
Published: March 23, 2017

When you think about Australian animals, chances are one of our cute koalas will come to mind. We wanted to know a little more about the iconic Australian marsupial so we spoke to Tim Faulkner from the Australian Reptile Park. Tim answered a few of our questions – like whether koalas are actually a type of bear, where you can cuddle one and whether they eat anything other than gum leaves. We even learned that the koala’s closest living relative is the wombat!

Get to know Australia's koalas

Video guide: Koala joeys at the Australian Reptile Park, New South Wales

Are koalas a type of bear?

"Although a popular theory, koalas have no relation to bears. Bears are placental mammals and koalas are marsupials. This means koalas give birth to a joey the size of a peanut that crawls into the pouch and spends the first six months of its life. The koala's closest living relative is the wombat which is ironic as one lives underground and the other in the trees."

How long do koalas live?

"In both the wild and in captivity, koalas can live up to 15 years old. They are sexually mature at the age of two and females have the ability to have over 10 joeys in their lifetime."

Which states in Australia can you find koalas?

"Koalas live along the whole East Coast of Australia. Their favourite habitats are along the great dividing range in the eucalyptus forests. They range from Queensland, through New South Wales and all the way down to Victoria and South Australia."

Koala, Australian Reptile Park, New South Wales

Do koalas really eat their mother's poop?

"Believe it or not, YES! At the age of around six months, koala joeys eat their mum's poo for several days. This is the stage of life just before the joey will emerge from the pouch and begin to eat eucalyptus leaves and the process is called papping. The difference between normal faeces and pap is that pap has live bacteria and is runny whereas normal poo is hard and pellet shaped.

The reason why they do this is because koala joeys are not born with the digestive enzymes to digest the toxic eucalyptus leaves. By doing this, the joey gets an introduction to enzymes/bacteria and in the coming weeks can begin to eat the leaves. Without papping the joey could not survive as an adult koala."

Are koalas friendly to humans?

"Koalas in the wild are not friendly to humans and very rarely do they come in contact with each other. If a wild koala is caught it will bite and scratch and can be rather nasty. On the other hand, koalas that have been kept in wildlife sanctuaries, like the Australian Reptile Park, become accustomed to people have an adorable nature."

Can you cuddle a koala at a zoo in Australia? 

"Most wildlife organisations in Australia have enclosures where you can meet a koala but you can only hold them in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in Queensland and South Australia."

Koala, Australian Reptile Park, New South Wales

Do koalas eat anything other than gum leaves? 

"Gum leaves or eucalyptus is the only food that koalas eat.  There are around 2,000 species of gum trees in Australia and koalas only eat a select few of these so keeping them happy and fed is a big job."

Do koalas drink water?

"Koalas do and can drink water. However, they rarely come to the ground. They only come to the ground if they need to move to another tree to find more food. When they do they are vulnerable to predators such as dingoes. More often than not, koalas get all the water they need from the succulent young leaves they eat."

Where do koalas sleep?

"Koalas sleep in the trees, right at the top. They actually have a hard cartilage plate along their back that over time develops a groove and allows them to wedge their bottom in a fork of a tree."

How much do koalas sleep?

"Koalas sleep for up to 20 hours every day. There is a common myth that koalas are drunk from the leaves they eat. This isn't true. The truth is that gum leaves are very low in nutritional value. The best way to conserve energy related to a low energy diet is to sleep. When they are awake they almost never stop eating. It’s a fine balance and if a koala is awake for too long burning energy they would be using more energy than they can possibly eat in the day!"