That luxurious fur. The slow-blinking eyes. The way they hug tree branches. Koalas are one of the world’s cutest animals and hard not to anthropomorphize. But what is this quiet and mysterious animal really like?  

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In her new book “Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future,” biologist and author Danielle Clode considers this adorable beast from every angle. She first became interested in them because they’re her neighbors.

Related: Half a billion Australian animals, even 30% of koala population, likely lost to wildfires

“Where I live in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, there are an abundance of koalas and I often see them wandering around or sleeping in the trees,” she wrote in her blog. However, she knew that koalas were becoming increasingly rare in Australia’s more northern forests and wondered why they were thriving in some places and disappearing in others. “The more I looked into koalas, the more I realized just how complicated they are. There’s a lot more to them than just sleeping and eating gum leaves.”

A woman wearing glasses and short hair standing beside a koala

A highly adapted animal

Clode has a nonstop interest in natural history. The prolific, award-winning author has written about whales, dinosaurs, fire management in Australia and a previous female Australian naturalist, to name a few subjects. Clode’s take on the koala is a long, slow meditation that seamlessly shifts her lens on the koala from chapter to chapter.

One of the takeaways is that koalas are highly adapted — and continue to adapt — to their environment. I guess this is pretty obvious, as they only live in Australia. But Clode delves into their intense connection with eucalypt forests and their difficulty in thriving or even surviving when transported to zoos in other parts of the world. Readers will marvel at how the guts of koalas manage to digest toxic eucalypt leaves that most species wouldn’t eat.

You’ll also find lots of good trivia. For example, you could spice up the dullest cocktail party by throwing in some chat about koala mating. Marsupials have two uteruses and two vaginal tracts to carry the sperm to the eggs. So the male has a bifurcated penis to fit the double vagina. According to Sara Eccleston at the Currumbim Wildlife Sanctuary, male koalas thrust exactly 42 times before ejaculating, which takes 1.5 minutes. Just try to top that for small talk.

Are koalas really cuddly?

People interested in animal behavior will wonder if koalas are really as cuddly as they look. Clode draws a fascinating picture of koalas as loners who also value the touch of other koalas now and then.

Of course, this can differ in the wild when they’re competing for food. The data is inconsistent. One researcher tells Clode that except for mating males, koalas avoid trees that smell like other koalas. But she’s also seen four or five koalas hang out together in the same tree, even though there are plenty of others to choose from.

In captivity, they seem pretty cuddly, both with each other and with their keepers. When Clode was working at the Adelaide Zoo, one morning a koala named Charlie wasn’t interested in his gum leaves and kept staring at Kerrie, his keeper.

“’He just wants a cuddle,’ she said. As Kerrie came closer, Charlie picked up speed and ambled towards her before sitting and reaching out for her to pick him up. She scratched his back and head, cooing to him as he blinked slowly and turned his head appreciatively,” she wrote. This affectionate koala is the one that many of us idealistic animal lovers dream of holding in our arms.

Clode also spent a lot of time at Cleland Wildlife Park, a major breeding and conservation center for koalas in the Adelaide Hills and home of a research hub called Koala Life. There she saw lots of koala besties who hang together, sitting side by side or spooning, sometimes sleeping on each other.

“Given an abundance of food (and without the fired-up hormones of the breeding season), they seem entirely amicable creatures for whom the touch and smell and warmth of their own kind is as comforting as it is for us,” Clode wrote.

But then there are the deadly-sharp claws. And not everybody thinks koalas are Australia’s top ambassador. In 1983, Australia tourism manager John Brown dissed koalas.

“The belief of Americans that they are a lovely, cuddly little bear is fairly well exploded when they get here and pick one of the rotten little things up,” he said. “They find it’s flea-ridden, it piddles on you, it stinks and it scratches.”

Koala problem solving

People have long debated koala intelligence. In many people’s minds, the placid look, the sleepy eyes, the not coming in from the rain are not marks of genius. But Clode discusses how koalas will assess a situation and make choices. For example, koalas are perfectly capable of swimming.

“If a boat is offered, however, they will readily accept the more comfortable mode of transport.” She recounts an episode students caught on video. While they were paddling canoes on the Murray River between New South Wales and Victoria, they came upon a koala clinging to an old tree stag. They saw it checking out their canoe and decided to give it a lift. “As the boat touched the tree, it immediately clambered on board. The students slowly turned the boat around, keeping their distance from the animal, until the bow nudged the bank. As soon as the boat touched the ground, the koala climbed into the bow before leaping out and strolling off into the trees.”

Habitat today

Of course, it’s not all cuddles and boat rides for these mysterious wild animals. Urban development and wildfires have destroyed lots of koala habitat. They’re especially susceptible to chlamydia, which can blind them before making them suffer a slow, painful death. Many are run over by cars or killed by dogs. Others get tangled in fences or drown in swimming pools — they’re good swimmers, but need a slope to get out of the water.

Clode’s parting advice to readers is that Australia needs better forest management if koalas are going to survive in the wild. While forests will regenerate on their own after wildfires, she and other conservation-minded citizens are planting trees to help things along.

“We’re linking up corridors of prime riparian habitat for wildlife throughout the area: joining the parks with reserves with private lands with roadsides, with gardens, with remnant pockets of bush, with treeways across farmland, all the way from the hills to the city. It’s a plan for the future — for decades ahead,” she said.

Images via Danielle Clode

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