Physical characteristics

The comical, appealing, "teddy bear" appearance of the koala has made it Australia's iconic animal. Despite the misleading popular name "koala bear," koalas are not, of course, related to the omnivorous bear family, but are herbivorous marsupials. They are medium sized, with a head and body length that can be as short as 24 in (60 cm), or as long as 33 in (85 cm), but is usually in the range 28-31 in (72-78 cm). Body weight can also vary considerably, from as little as 8.8 lb (4 kg) for a northern female, to as much as 33 lb (15 kg) for a southern male, but the usual range is 11-26 lb (5.0-11.8 kg). Males are up to 50% larger than females, and there is a significant size difference between koalas in Queensland,

The Queensland koala (Phascolarctos cinerus adustus) is one of three subspecies of koala. (Photo by Animals Animals ┬ęDavid Boyle. Reproduced by permission.)

where males average 14.3 lb (6.5 kg) and those further south, where males average 26 lb (11.8 kg).

The koala has a compact body with a broad head, large nose, and small eyes. The ears are large and rounded with white edges. Koalas have only a vestigial tail, which is of no assistance in climbing, but they have long, strong limbs, with large paws and sharp claws which are well adapted to grip smooth-barked eucalyts. Fore and hind feet have five digits, all with sharp, recurved claws, except for the first digit of the hind foot, which is short and broad. The first and second digits of the forefeet are opposable to the other three, allowing the animal to grip smaller branches and climb into the outer canopy in search of fresh leaves. The second and third toes of the hind feet are fused, with a double claw.

Koalas do not use dens nor shelters, so their fur is important for insulation. Southern koalas have dense, woolly coats, with thicker, longer fur on the back than the belly. Koalas living further north in warmer subtropical and tropical regions have shorter coats (also lighter in color), sometimes appearing almost naked. The color and pattern of coats varies considerably between individuals and with age, from gray to tawny, with white on the chin, chest, and forelimbs and whitish dappling on the rump. Males have a large chest gland that is used for scent marking trees. Females have a marsupial pouch opening to the rear and containing two teats.

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