Australia’s got some pretty interesting animals, what with all their bouncing kangaroos and freaky jumping spiders. It’s safe to say that none are as cute as the koala, a cuddly-seeming marsupial (with shockingly sharp claws) whose visage graces the cover of so many tourism brochures, websites and commercials for the land Down Under.
Related to kangaroos and wombats, koalas are marsupial mammals, known for their trademark baby pouches. That’s not the only reason that they’re extra interesting, though. Here are some fun facts about koalas (just don’t call them “koala bears” – they’re not related to bears in any way).
1. Contrary to Popular Belief, Koalas Do Drink Water
The name “koala” translates to “no water” or “no drink” in Dharug, an Australian Aboriginal language. This name was based on observations of the little guys in their natural habitat. “It was once believed that koalas didn’t need to drink because they received enough moisture from eucalyptus leaves,” says Dr. Stuart Blanch, forest conservation manager for World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia in an email. “However, they do drink from various water sources when needed, especially during heatwaves and in times of drought when the water content of eucalyptus leaves drops considerably.”
Although koala is the animal’s primary name, it was also known by additional names including cullawine, kaola, koolewong and koobor, among others.
2. They Have Individual Fingerprints
Koala hands are pretty different from those of other animals. First, each front paw features two thumbs, which Blanch says facilitates climbing their beloved eucalyptus trees. They also are one of very few species of animals to sport individual fingerprints (humans, chimpanzees and gorillas are the others). “Scientists believe apes and koalas evolved these ridges in the skin independently to assist with grasping,” Blanch says.
3. They Have an Interesting Gestation Period
Baby koalas, known as “joeys,” are delivered while still in the embryonic phase of development, and only weigh about 0.02 ounce (half a gram) at this time. They then take up residence in the mother koala’s pouch, spending about six months gaining weight and otherwise developing. After one month in the pouch the koala still is less than half an inch (only 1 centimeter) in length! Once the initial six months is up, baby koalas transfer to riding on their mother’s backs for another half a year, using the pouch only for nap times and feedings. Eventually, koalas grow to about 25 to 30 inches (63 to 76 centimeters) long.
4. They Have a Unique Digestive Organ
Koalas have their very own digestive organ, known as a “caecum,” to help them digest their diet of eucalyptus leaves. This organ is necessary because eucalyptus is usually poisonous, but the caecum actually detoxifies the offending chemicals, making them delicious and nutritious for koalas. All that eucalyptus does cause koalas to smell a little like cough drops.
5. They’re Surprisingly Speedy
If koalas seem lazy, it’s because they usually are. “Koalas appear lethargic in trees as they conserve energy. They are poorly adapted to walking on the ground so they usually amble along at a sluggish pace,” Dr. Blanch explains. “But if necessary koalas can break into a gallop, moving at speeds of up to 30 kilometers [18 miles] per hour.”
6. The Koala Butt Has Many Uses
Koala posteriors play an interesting role in helping them survive and thrive, particularly while perched high up in eucalyptus trees. “The fur on the Koala’s rump is densely packed and acts like a ‘cushion’, and cartilage over the end of their curved spine provides even more padding, allowing them to make eucalyptus trees a comfortable home!” Blanch says, noting that the koala’s closest relative, the wombat, also has a cartilage pad on their bottom, but they use theirs to prevent predators from coming into their burrows.
That’s not the only helpful thing about the koala butt. Blanch notes that the koala rump is white and speckled in appearance, which prevents predators from easily spotting them from the ground.
7. President Herbert Hoover Saved Them From Extinction
“Koalas have thick, woolly fur which acts like a ‘raincoat’ to repel moisture when it rains. It’s this waterproof quality that made koala fur sought after for hats and gloves and to line coats,” says Blanch. Eight million koala pelts were sold in the U.K., Europe and U.S. between 1888 and 1927. President Herbert Hoover, who had spent time in Australia when young, may have saved them from extinction. As secretary of commerce, he signed an order banning the importation of koala pelts to the U.S. in 1927. However, that was not the last threat koalas faced.
8. They’re Still on the Decline
It’s hard to believe in this day and age of conservation that koala numbers have plummeted so drastically in the last decade. In fact, experts estimated there were only around 329,000 koalas left in 2016, a drop of 24 percent in three generations. Several factors have contributed to this drastic drop, particularly habitat destruction. At this disturbing rate, koalas are on pace to be completely extinct by 2050.