Koalas on display at Singapore Zoo: 10 things about the cuddly creatures

This article was first published on April 10, 2015, and updated on May 21, 2015. 

SINGAPORE - Children, koala fans and lovers of all things adorable rejoice: Four of the furry creatures, which arrived last month, can finally be viewed by the public from May 20 at the Singapore Zoo. 

Paddle (eight), Pellita (six), Chan (five) and Idalia (two) are on an initial six-month loan from Australia, although they may become permanent gifts and be given local names, according to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  

The special gift is to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between Australia and Singapore, and to celebrate the Republic's 50th birthday this year.

Here are 10 things to know about the cuddly creatures.

1. The power of koala diplomacy

This is not the first time Australia has made use of the irresistible charms of its native animal to break ice and melt hearts.

The koala's diplomatic sway was evident during the G-20 Brisbane summit in November last year, when the cuddly ambassador was photographed in the arms of world leaders like US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

 

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Japan's Saitama Children's Zoo also has three koalas - gifts from Queensland's Newman government to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its sister-state relationship with Saitama prefecture in 2013.

Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who is a believer in koala diplomacy, said "it portrays Australia in a soft light and promotes our values as an open, free, tolerant democracy".

Australia has begun formalising the use of koalas as a "soft power" diplomatic strategy, reported the Sydney Morning Herald, with the Foreign Affairs Department drawing up a 600-page manual on this.

2. It is not a bear

They are commonly referred to as koala bears due to their close resemblance to bears, but they are actually marsupials or pouched mammals. They are closely related to kangaroos and wallabies, which all carry their young in pouches.

Its scientific name, Phascolarctos cinereus, however, has a reference to bears.

Phascolarctos is derived from the Greek words "phaskolo", meaning pouch, and "arktos", which is bear. "Cinereus" is Latin for ash-coloured.

3. They are found in four Australian states

They can be found in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Each state is responsible for its own legislation on koala conservation.

They live and sleep in eucalyptus trees, spending most of their time wedged in between branches.

4. They are "vulnerable" but not endangered

The Australian Government officially declared the koala as "vulnerable" in April 2012. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is listed as the "least concern" for extinction due to its wide distribution.

However, the Australian Koala Foundation estimates there are between 43,000 and fewer than 100,000 koalas left in the wild. Although they have few natural predators, habitat loss due to deforestation is a key threat. Koalas need a lot of space - about a hundred trees per animal.

Attacks by dogs and being run over by cars are other factors threatening the koala population. More than 4,000 koalas are killed each year due to these reasons.

5. They are not as soft and cuddly as they look

Contrary to popular belief, a koala's fur is coarse and feels more like the wool from a sheep. Its fur repels water and keeps them dry during rainy weather.

They also have very sharp, curved claws that are used for climbing trees. Koalas that are disturbed are also known to bite and cause serious injury to humans with their claws.

6.The oldest koala was 23

The average life span of koalas in the wild is about 10 years. If their habitat is destroyed, it drops drastically to a few months or years.

Males generally have a shorter life span than females due to the stresses of fights during breeding seasons and the dangers from cars and dogs when moving around in search of mates.

Those in captivity also tend to live longer than their counterparts in the wild, as food is plentiful and veterinary care is readily available.

The oldest known koala is a female, Sarah, from the Lone Pine Sanctuary in Queensland. She lived to the ripe old age of 23 in 2001.

A male koala is known as a buck, a female is called a doe and a baby is referred to as a joey.

7. They sleep up to 22 hours a day

The common perception is that pandas sleep a lot, but koalas are even more slothful.

The norm is for them to sleep between 18 and 22 hours a day - usually on trees - to conserve energy as their diet requires lots of it to digest.

Koalas are also often solitary creatures - they are only seen in the company of others when mating or raising their young.

8. They eat a lot but rarely drink

Their diet consists of mainly leaves from the eucalyptus, which are toxic to humans. Unique bacteria in the koala's digestive tract break down the poisonous compounds contained in the leaves.

An adult koala requires up to 500g of leaves a day, according to the Australia Zoo . They even store snacks of leaves in pouches in their cheeks.

But they rarely drink as there is water in the leaves.

Koalas are picky eaters. There are over 700 species of eucalyptus, but they feed on fewer than 50 of those. Australian national carrier Qantas delivers four to six different types of leaves from Brisbane’s Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary to Singapore twice a week.

9. They hug trees to stay cool

A new study by Australian scientists has revealed that the black-nosed creatures hug trees to stay cool.

Koalas usually pant, which causes evaporated moisture from their mouths to carry heat away from their bodies, to keep cool. But hugging a tree trunk on hot days also helps then retain water, which would otherwise be lost through panting.

10. Other interesting facts

They have individual fingerprints just like humans do. In fact, they are the only other mammals besides primates to have them.

They have an excellent sense of hearing thanks to their big ears, which compensates for their poor eyesight.

Koalas smell a little like cough drops, which is similar to the eucalyptus. Instead of urinating to mark their territory like most animals do, they have a scent gland on their chests that they rub against trees.

They also have a short gestation period of 33 to 35 days. A newborn koala joey is the size of a jellybean and weighs less than one gram.

mklee@sph.com.sg

Sources: Savethekoala.com, AFP, livescience.com, Australia Zoo, Sydney Morning Herald, Singapore Zoo