Koalas Are Not a Type of Bear

Koala “bears” aren’t a type of bear at all, as it turns out, and their non-scientific name doesn’t include “bear” on the end, as is commonly spoken outside of Australia by the English speaking world. They are simply “Koalas”.

So if they aren’t a member of the family Ursidae (bears), what are they? In fact, they are marsupials, along with kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and possums, among others. Marsupials have the distinctive feature of a pouch, called a “marsupium”. Unlike most marsupials though, a female Koala’s pouch opens downward, rather than upward.

The name “Koala Bear” is thought to come from English speaking settlers around the 18th century.  They frequently would name new animals they saw based on what animal it looked like that they were familiar with. Around this same time, Koalas were also often referred to as “tree-bear”, “sloth”, “monkey-bear”, and other such names by these same settlers.

While Koala’s may look cuddly, they are anything but. Their fur is not soft and fluffy like it appears, but rather has more of the consistency of wool. So snuggling with a Koala would feel about like snuggling with sheep, only Koalas have long claws and incredibly strong grips. They also are very solitary animals, preferring to be by themselves most of the time, so make poor pets.

Another myth surrounding Koala’s is that they sleep most of the day because they are intoxicated by the eucalyptus leaves they eat. In fact, they simply have very slow metabolisms and it takes a long time for their bodies to process these leaves, which are normally poisonous to most animals. Also, given that they almost exclusively eat eucalyptus leaves, this tends to introduce very little caloric and nutritional value into their diet. As such, they have to sleep nearly 20 hours a day, conserving energy and allowing time for their bodies and the microbes in their digestive tract to process the eucalyptus leaves.

Bonus Facts:

  • Koalas are the only surviving member of the family Phascolarctidae, with all the other types of animals in that family having become extinct.
  • Phascolarctos comes from the Greek word for “pouch”.
  • Koalas almost never need to drink water, getting sufficient water from the leaves they eat. In times of drought or when food is scarce, they will drink water from streams and the like, if necessary. But generally speaking, they don’t need to. This is a good thing too, because Koalas are slow moving and easy prey when on the ground.
  • Eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to most animals, but Koalas are uniquely adapted to be able to process the leaves. They have special kinds of teeth that help grind the leaves into a fine paste and then they have a special blend of bacteria in their digest tract that break down the poisonous oils in the leaves so as not to harm the Koalas. These same microbes also are responsible for most of the nutritional value the Koalas get from the leaves, with the microbes breaking down the leaves and producing the various vitamins that the Koala needs to live.
  • The special blend of microbes found in the stomachs and intestines of the Koala get there through the mother, who has a special type of poop, called “pap”, that the baby Koalas eat when they are about ready to leave the pouch. Without these microbes, the Koala would not survive.
  • When Koalas are first born, they are about the size of a large raisin. At this point, they are also blind and deaf. The extent of their abilities at this stage is simply to climb, which they will do until they reach the mother’s pouch. Once there, they’ll attach to one of the nipples and stay there for the next 6 months or so, until they grow too big to fit in the pouch. The baby Koala, called a “joey” will stay with the mother until it reaches around a year to two years old. The Koala will leave to find its own home once the mother is ready to have another joey.
  • Despite the fact that Koalas are slow moving animals, they have no real natural predators, due to the fact that they spend the vast majority of their lives high up in trees.
  • Numbering in the tens of millions only a century ago, today there are only about 40,000-80,000 Koalas alive in the wild, with that number dwindling fast as their natural habitat is destroyed by wildfires and humans.
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  • Curious fact: The italian name for the Koala (beside koala) is “Orsetto Lavatore” where Orsetto = Little bear and Lavatore = Washing (where Lavare means “to wash). So the name translates in “Little washing bear”.
    Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear this name was earned by its ability to do the laundry, otherwise it would make a fabulous pet regardless of his coarse fur.

    • All reference I can find to “Orsetto Lavatore” or “Little washing bear” seem to be for raccoons.

      • And you are right. I must have been out to lunch that day.
        Raccoons are not bears either, yet “orsetto” means little bear. I must have played a game of telephone in my own foggy brain.

        • True, raccoons are not bears, but I can see the “washing” part. The way they rub their faces and their penitent for washing their food.

  • Listen MarcoC before you start saying stuff in an internet articles comment box which every one knows to be the most accurate source of information like any where maybe yeah know be right! So that scholars sourcing you are correct to!

  • Australia has the most marsupials in the world because according to studies, species in Australia are late in evolution, that’s why almost every animals there are marsupials, they produce immature babies via pouches, and they do not deliver babies like normal mammals

    • That’s not quite what happened, indeed marsupials are generally “older” than the mammals with placentas.

      Oz and nearby islands have retained marsupials because they were cut off from Eurasia and the Americas before critters like placental mammals evolved. That allowed marsupials and a couple of monotremes to survive. Everywhere else, the placental types supplanted the marsupials. Having placentas seems to confer some evolutionary advantage to mammalian species.

      That sort of thing happens a lot in out-of-the-way places like islands.

  • I’m Australian and say ‘Koala Bear’ and it was always been ‘Koala Bear’ when I was growing up.

    The Koala is strongly associated with tourism to Australia and is therefore also strongly associated with foreign people. “Koala Bear” meaning “That Koala looks like a teddy bear” is reified by racists as foreigners meaning “That Koala is a type of bear”. This is used to portray foreigners as ignorant and disrespectful of what “real” Australians say.

    Other folk lore about Koalas is also xenophobic in nature such as the ‘Drop Bear’ that attacks non-english speakers and tourists.

    Just like people who turn wedding cakes into a rubric for homophobia people that insist on making this pedantic correction should generally be ignored.

    Note that there is no controversy with “Tasmanian Tiger”, “Flying Fox”, “Rat-Kangaroo” etc. even though these common names would have the same problem if reified. And this can be extended to other animals, e.g. do we need to correct people from believing a “Sea Horse” is an actual type of horse?

    Some Australians get upset to be told only foreigners say ‘Koala Bear’, just like Americans would be upset if
    they were told to say “opussum” instead of “possum” otherwise they weren’t a “real” American.

    Rather than saying ‘Koala is not a bear’ we should be saying ‘The Koala is not for your culture wars’.

    • you really don’t like tourists! imagine your beautiful country going broke because the lack of! And without all the millions of dollars that everyone is donating to help save the koalas because of your stupid fires! Be kind you’ll live a better life!

  • “Penchant”. It sort of means a liking for, a tendency towards or a habit of. “He has a penchant for bacon baps at breakfast-time.”

    “Penitent” is a guy suffering for his sins. “Penitentiary” is related.

    If I were you, I’d blame autocorrect. 🙂