Albion Monitor /Features

Needless to say, koalas smell strongly of eucalyptus

Are eucalyptus really so incompatible with wildlife? Ecologists in California complain that stands of eucalyptus offer little forage for native species. But don't koalas lounge around in the branches of eucalyptus trees all day munching on the crescent-shaped leaves?

Koalas, native to Australia, evolved with the eucalyptus, and they're about the only ones with a digestive system equipped to handle its tough, oily foliage. An adult koala boasts a six-foot appendix, adapted to process the heavy oils they ingest with eucalayptus leaves. A suckling koala eats a rich mush of eucalyptus matter from mom. A diet like that would give other mammals a major case of indigestion. Needless to say, koalas smell strongly of eucalyptus.

Australia has about 100,000 of the shy but grouchy mammals (they're marsupials -- "koala bear" is a misnomer), and the creatures are a protected species in the island nation. They're finicky eaters. Koalas won't eat anything but eucalyptus, and even then they only nibble on the leaves of 48 of the species, ignoring the other 500-odd varieties of eucalyptus. (The genus eucalyptus is native only to Australia, New Guinea and the Philippine Islands, although by mid-20th century they had been transplanted to almost every dry-weather country such as India, Spain, Sicily and North Africa.)

One last note about the koalas' obsession with eucalyptus foliage. The leaves contain a compound that acts as a mild narcotic, at least on koalas. So the koala, who spends nearly all his time chewing the leathery leaves, lounges in the treetops in a perpetual high. That's why you don't see the narcoleptic koala swinging from branches or otherwise exerting himself much.

Simone Wilson

Albion Monitor September 16, 1995 (

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