One animal often mistaken for a small bear and thought of as one of the cutest animals in the world, is the koala. It is a small, fuzzy marsupial (meaning they have a pouch) that has gray to brown colored fur with a white underbelly. It travels through the tree branches to eat, sleep, and nurse its young. It spends most of its lifecycle in the trees and only descends to the ground if necessary. They are popular and adored for their small size and unique features.
The females give birth to only one baby koala at a time, but during the mother's lifecycle, she will produce up to six cubs. The newborn koala is called a joey and does not resemble the adult since it is blind with undeveloped features and only measures one inch in length and weighs less than 0.05 ounces. Following birth, the joey makes its way to the mother's pouch, attaches itself inside, and over the next six months, develops its eyes, legs, and fur. Following its development, it leaves the pouch and resembles the familiar cute and cuddly appearance of an adult koala.
The young koala though will continue to hitch a ride on the mother's back and nurse off the mother's milk for up to a year eating eucalyptus leaves, which is the only food koalas eat. Although the leaves are poisonous to most animals, inside the koala's stomach is some special bacteria that help the animal break down and digest the leaves. They eat up to one pound of the leaves a day with special teeth adapted to the diet.
Most of their front and back teeth act like scissors to chop the leaves into pieces suitable for digestion, and the leaves contain a fair amount of moisture leading the koalas to seldom drink water. The eucalyptus leaves are high in fiber and low in nutrients. They can survive on the diet since they have a low metabolic system to conserve nutrients and energy plus they sleep up to 20 hours per day. One of the main reasons koalas are endangered in some areas is the destruction of native eucalyptus forest habitats.
Adult koalas grow up to 3 feet in length and weigh between 20 to 30 pounds, and they live to be about 15 to 20 years old. The adult heads include a long black nose, small round eyes, and big ears. They have strong limbs and their claws on the paws are designed to easily grasp and climb branches. It has a small body structure and is not top heavy which allows it to easily maneuver and balance on tree branches. They communicate using scratch and scent markings and vocalize with screeches, bellows, and murmurs.
Most koalas live in the southeastern regions of Australia including the states of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria. They do not have natural predators, and only humans and human pets are enemies of the koala, especially the joeys. Their habitats decline as human populations demand more land leading to their endangerment.
Conservation measures will eventually be necessary to save the koala's habitat and population. And though they have unique adaptations for living in their habitat of eucalyptus forests, most wildlife, like the koala, in general, cannot adapt as fast as the rapid changes brought on by mankind.
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