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The furry, gray koala lives high in the tops of eucalyptus trees. Now a protected species, it is still threatened by the loss of habitat due to seasonal brush fires. While it looks like a small bear, the koala is actually a marsupial whose hands and feet are specially adapted for climbing trees. When it descends to the ground, it shuffles along awkwardly on its short, stocky legs.

The koala lives almost exclusively in the top branches of eucalyptus trees. Its strong legs and sharp claws help it to grip the tree trunks. A nocturnal animal, the koala feeds on the young shoots and leaves on high branches, and spends the day sleeping curled up in the tree.

During the course of its evolution, the koala has developed special cheek pouches that store food, and a digestive system to handle a diet consisting entirely of eucalyptus leaves. Koalas eat between 1 and 2 pounds of leaves each day, and can easily exhaust their own food supply. Koalas cannot survive without eucalyptus, so the main difficulty in keeping them alive in zoos and sanctuaries is obtaining enough eucalyptus leaves from the right species with which to feed them.

Koalas mate between December and February, depending on location. A single baby is born after a 35 day gestation period. It is blind, hairless, and only 3/4 inch long. By instinct, it drags itself into its mother’s pouch, which opens to the rear instead of the front as with most other marsupials. Inside the pouch, the baby koala feeds first on mother’s milk, and later on half-digested food that is passed through the mother’s rectum. After six months, the young koala leaves the pouch and clings to its mother’s back, remaining with her until the following mating season. It then moves to another tree and lives independently for two to four years until it is sexually mature.

Until the early 1900’s, the koala was widespread in Australia. But increased settlement by man brought about a dramatic decline in its population. Much of its natural habitat was destroyed by fires set to clear the land. Koalas were also widely hunted for their warm, durable fur, more than 2 million skins were exported from Australia in 1924 alone. It is now a protected species.