Disturbing reports out of Australia are claiming the Koala, one of its most iconic animals, is now functionally extinct in the wild. The Koala is just another species suffering with a dramatically changing climate and coupled with habitat destruction, they could be extinct in just a few generations.
Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus), a classic marsupial, history dates to over 25 million years on the Australian continent. However, marsupials, a class of mammals, are thought to have evolved nearly 90 million years ago in North America. Best evidence suggests the earliest marsupials migrated to South American, then to Antarctica, long before it became a frozen continent, then to modern day Australia. Australia broke off of Antarctica around 55 million years ago, and the marsupials isolated on that continent evolved into many of the iconic species we see today, Kangaroos, Koalas, Tasmanian Devils, among many others.
The modern-day Koala emerged around 15 million years ago during a freezing period of the Earth. Many of the tropical rainforests of the day disappeared, leaving a much drier continent, allowing drought tolerant plants like the eucalyptus to survive and thrive. The Koalas closest relative is the Wombat.
Koalas were first called “Koala Bears” by European colonists in the early 1800s. They are not related to true bears or Ursidae in any way and just termed that due to their appearance. Australian pelt traders nearly wiped out the Koala in the early 20th century. Nearly 10 million Koalas are thought to have been hunted and killed, leaving only a few hundred in their native range.
To understand Koala physiology, first everything for them is based on diet. The eucalyptus that Koala feed exclusively on is very low in nutritive value. In fact, the leaves from a eucalyptus tree can be poisonous to many other animals. However, Koala have adapted to eating these plants and because they are low in nutrients, Koala, are very low energy animals. They tend to sleep nearly 18 hours each day, and eat starting in the evening hours, well into the night.
In the wild, Koala tend to live around 10 years of age. The oldest known Koala was held under human care and lived to be 23 years old. One of the reasons they cannot live long in the wild is, eating the rubbery leaves of eucalyptus tends to grind their teeth down, and in the end they cannot eat enough to sustain themselves. Natural predators to Koala include the dingo, some raptors and Australia’s Powerful Owl. However, their biggest threat is humans.
One of the most interesting facts about Koalas is that they all have individual fingerprints, similar to humans, chimpanzees and gorillas.
The IUCN reports Koala are Vulnerable and number roughly 300,000 animals left. However, a leading conservation organization is claiming Koalas are functionally extinct and may number less than 80,000. While research needs to continue to investigate the plight of the Koala, such claims of their impending extinction must be substantiated with research. What is clear is, Koalas are suffering due to climate change and the significant droughts being suffered in Australia. What also is true is, there are local populations of Koala that are functionally extinct due to habitat loss and inbreeding.