He keeps his little round eyes fixed on yours, blinking solemnly; and all you can do is wriggle with delight at your discovery that in this disillusioned grown-up world you have met the most lovable toy of your childhood come to life. Here is the very teddy bear Aunt Alice gave you when you were three. If Aunt Alice put her hand deep down into her handbag and did you really proud, the two are the same size. Perhaps not the same colour, for koala favours grey or silver or a glossy browny-black, and goes in for white waistcoats; but otherwise, front view, they are twins. The same big bushy ears: the same trusting little face: the same absurd button of a nose.1
Since the first arrival of Europeans on Australian shores, the koala has been an object of curiosity and wonder. Initially, observers tried to compare it to other species they were more familiar with. Though some of these observations are, with hindsight, strange, or even bizarre, many were insightful and helped to form the basis of our current understanding of the koala. By emphasising the koala's originality, these first accounts would also play their part in saving it from extinction. In this chapter, we explore the discovery of the koala by Europeans.
The first European settlement in Australia was founded at Botany Bay, on 20 January 1788. The primary purpose behind the settlement of Australia might have been to rid the British Government of some of the more disreputable members of its society, but many of those who travelled with the First Fleet were enthusiastic naturalists, eager to experience the strange flora and fauna of this brave new world.2 One such person was Captain (on arrival Governor) Phillip. His Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, published in 1789,3 contained the drawings of a number of species new to Europeans including the spotted-tailed quoll Dasyurus maculatus, eastern quoll Dasyurus viverrinus, brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecular, long-nosed potoroo Potorous tridactylus, squirrel glider Petaurus norfolcensis (which was incorrectly thought to have come from Norfolk Island), greater glider Petauroides volans, eastern grey kangaroo Macropusgiganteus (which had been seen by Captain Cook and his crew in 1770 at the Endeavour River in north Queensland) and dingo Canis lupus dingo.
The koala, however, was not discovered until ten years after the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay. John Price, a young free servant of Phillip's successor, Governor John Hunter, made the first recorded observation by a European of a koala. On 26 January 1798, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, he noted that 'there is another animal which the natives call a cullawine, which resembles the sloths in America'. 4
In 1802, Ensign Francis Barrallier became the first European to lay hands on a partial specimen of a koala. Bar-rallier's party met a group of Aborigines who had recently captured a 'monkey' in the bush near the Nepean River in the outskirts of Sydney. Barrallier salvaged what he could for Governor King from the already butchered animal and recorded that:
Gory [an Aboriginal assistant of Barrallier] told me that they had brought portions of a monkey (in native language colo), but thy [sic] had cut it into pieces, and the head, which I should have liked to secure, had disappeared. I could only get two feet through an exchange which Gory made for two spears and one tomahawk. I sent these two feet to the Governor preserved in a bottle of brandy. 5
The first live koala arrived in Sydney the following year when Barrallier obtained an animal for the Governor, an event recorded in the Sydney Gazette for 21 August 1803:
An animal, whose species was never before found in the colony, is in His Excellency's possession. When taken it had two pups, one of which died a few days since. This creature is somewhat larger than the waumbut [wombat], and although it might at first appearance be thought to resemble it, nevertheless differs from that animal. The fore and hind legs are about of an equal length, having five sharp talons at each of the extremities, with which it must have climbed the highest trees with much facility. The fur that covers it is soft and fine, and of a mixed grey colour; the ears are short and open; the graveness of the visage, which differs little in colour from the back, would seem to indicate a more than ordinary portion of animal sagacity; and the teeth resemble those of a rabbit. The surviving pup generally clings to the back of the mother; or is caressed with a serenity that appears peculiarly characteristic; it has a false belly like the opossum, and its food consists solely of gum leaves, in the choice of which it is excessively nice.6
Interestingly the Sydney Gazette records that the animal had twins, a very rare occurrence in koalas. It is not known if a subsequent account of a koala in the Sydney Gazette is the same animal:
Sergeant Packer, of Pitt's Row, has in his possession a native animal sometime since described in our paper, and called by the natives a Koolah. It has two young, has been caught more than a month, and feeds chiefly on gum leaves, but also eats bread soaked in milk and water.7
Robert Brown (the naturalist who accompanied Matthew Flinders on the HMAS Investigator) sent a brief description of the koala to the botanist and President of the Royal Society Sir Joseph Banks in September 1803:
A new and remarkable species of Didelphis has been lately brought in from the southward of Botany Bay. It is called by the natives coloo or coola, and most approaches the wombat, from which it differs in the number of teeth and in several other circumstances.
The Governor, I learn, sends a drawing made by Mr. Lewin. Mr. Bauer cannot on so short a notice finish the more accurate one he has taken. The necessity of sending my description, which is very imperfect, as the animal will not submit to be closely inspected, and I have had no opportunity of dissecting one, is in a great measure superseded by Mr. Tuman having purchas'd a pair, which from their present healthy appearance, will probably reach England alive, or if not, will be preserv'd for anatomical examination.8
'Mr Bauer' was the brilliant Austrian-born artist, Ferdinand Bauer, who accompanied Robert Brown and Matthew Flinders on the Investigator. He was the first to capture in accurate scientific detail the colour and the morphology of the strange new creature. Bauer and Brown returned to England late in 1805, bringing with them botanical specimens of over 8000 species, together with 1500 drawings of plants and 280 exquisite paintings of Australian animals.
The first detailed examination of the koala was published by the surgeon Sir Everard Home in 1808.9 The account of the koala was sent to Home from Lieutenant-Governor Paterson of New South Wales, but Home confuses the koala with a wombat, referring to it as another species of wombat. He appears to have been misled by the Australian Aboriginals who sometimes use the term 'koala wombat'. Nonetheless Home identifies some interesting aspects of the anatomy and ecology of the koala:
The natives call it the koala wombat: it inhabits the forests of New Holland, about fifty or sixty miles to the south-west of Port Jackson and was first brought to Port Jackson in August, 1803. It is commonly about two feet long and one high, in the girth about one foot and a half; it is covered with fine soft fur, lead-coloured on the back, and white on the belly. The ears are short, erect, and pointed; the eyes generally ruminating, sometimes fiery and menacing; it bears no small resemblance to the bear in the fore part of its body; it has no tail; its posture for the most part is sitting.
The New Hollanders eat the flesh of this animal, and therefore readily join in the pursuit of it. They examine with wonderful rapidity and minuteness the branches of the loftiest gum trees. Upon discovering the koala, they climb the tree in which it is seen with as much ease and expedition, as a European would mount a tolerably high ladder. Having reached the branches, which are sometimes 40 or 50 feet from the ground, they follow the animal to the extremity of a bough, and either kill it with the tomahawk, or take it alive.
The koala feeds upon the tender shoots of the blue gum tree, being more particularly fond of this than of any other food; it rests during the day on the tops of these trees, feeding at its ease, or sleeping. In the night it descends and prowls about, scratching up the ground in search of some particular roots; it seems to creep rather than walk. When incensed or hungry, it utters a long, shrill yell, and assumes a fierce and menacing look. They are found in pairs, and the young are carried by the mother on the shoulders. The animal appears soon to form an attachment to the person who feeds it.10
Despite Home's authoritative tone, the koala does not creep, but has instead a bounding gait when on the ground. Nor are they typically found in pairs, except during the mating season or when a mother is carrying her joey on her stomach or back.
George Perry's portrait of the koala, and its accompanying description, included in his Arcana, is largely fanciful.11 Perry is thoroughly unimpressed by the koala, but his text makes entertaining reading when one considers that the koala is in no way related to sloths or bears, it does not feed on berries or fruits, nor does it have enemies such as the raccoon or dwarf bear as these species do not occur in Australia.
The Bradypus or Sloth is one of those animals which are in some degree allied to the Bear, the formation of the legs and shoulders in a great measure resembling the latter. From this analogy of shape and character, the animal which has lately been discovered in the East Indies, and has been described by
Bewick as the Ursine Sloth [Sloth Bear of Asia], has excited in the minds of different philosophers, an expectation of a new and more correct arrangement of their genera and species. In this hope, however, they have hither-to been disappointed, and we shall most probably have to wait until farther discoveries in Natural History shall enable us more accurately to define those specimens which we at present exhibit. Even the different species of Bears are not yet thoroughly understood, those of Europe not being properly distinguished or described; but it is a point which the French writers are at present endeavouring to clear up and make more systematical.
Previous to a more particular description of the present animal, it may be necessary to observe, that although it does not agree entirely, in the form of its feet, with either the three-toed or two-toed Bradypus which are found in other countries, yet the similitude is so strong in most peculiarities, which it possesses, that the naturalist may perhaps be considered as fully justified in placing it with the genus Bradypus or Sloth. It is necessary to repeat, that this animal, of which there are but three or four species known, has received its name from the sluggishness and inactivity of its character, and for its remaining for a long time fixed to one spot. It inhabits woody situations, where it resides among the branches of trees, feeding upon the leaves and fruit, and is a solitary animal rarely to be met with. It is armed with hooked claws and the fore feet are in general longer than the hinder ones: some of the species of Bradypus have a tail; others are without.
Amongst the numerous and curious tribes of animals, which the hitherto almost undiscovered regions of New Holland have opened to our view, the creature which we are now about to describe stands singularly pre-eminent. Whether we consider the uncouth and remarkable form of its body, which is particularly awkward and unwieldy, or its strange physiognomy and manner of living, we are at a loss to imagine for what particular scale of usefulness or happiness such an animal could by the great Author of Nature possibly be destined. That the solitary and desert wastes of that immense country should be animated by creatures of so different a texture and appearance to any hitherto known, no Naturalist, however sanguine in his expectations, could have easily suspected. Many of the animals that reside in the pathless and extensive forests of New Holland are furnished with a flap or appendage, being a winged membrane covered on the outside with hair like the rest of the body, and reaching in a square form from the toes of the fore leg to the hinder one. By the spreading out of these, they can descend, in the manner of a parachute, from branch to branch, but at the same time they have no means to fly straight forwards. Of these families are various species of Didelphis [marsupials], Sciurus volans [greater glider?], Opossum [South American marsupials]. But it is not to be supposed that all the animals which reside amongst the branches of the trees are armed with these useful appendages of motion, for the Koalo is wholly without them, and seems to have no other means than its claws, which are indeed powerful and deeply hooked for the purpose of climbing or descent.
The Koalo when fully grown is supposed to be about two feet and a half in height. The predominant colour of these animals is a bright brown or snuff colour, but suddenly growing pale towards the hinder parts or haunches. This animal, like the Capibara [the largest species of rodent, found in South America] and some other quadrupeds, is wholly without a tail, and indeed the possession of such an appendage, in the mode of life which it enjoys, would be of little use, but rather an annoyance, as it is sufficiently defended from the flies by the length and thickness of its furry skin. The ears are dark coloured, bushy and spreading; it has four teeth projecting in front like those of the Rabbit; but how the grinders are situated or what is their number is not hitherto known. The nose is rounded; the fore legs and underside of the belly pale and ferruginous; the eyes are sharp and sparkling: each fore foot has two thumbs and two fingers, the latter conjoined, which singular combination assists them very materially in clasping hold of the branches of the trees.
The Koalo is supposed to live chiefly upon berries and fruits, and like all animals not carnivorous, to be of a quiet and peaceful disposition. Its only enemies must be the Racoon and Dwarf Bear of that country, and from which it can easily escape by climbing, and its appearance at a small distance must resemble a bunch of dry and dead moss. As there are no kind of Tygers or Wolves known as yet, except the Australasian Fox should be reckoned as a Wolf, the smaller animals must be upon the whole more secure than in most other countries.
The Koalo has more analogy to the Sloth-tribe than any other animal that has hitherto been found in New Holland, the eye is placed like that of the Sloth, very close to the mouth and nose, which gives it a clumsy awkward appearance, and void of elegance in the combination. The motions of such a creature being slow and languid, and the back lengthened out by the continual hanging posture which they assume; they have little either in their character or appearance to interest the Naturalist or Philosopher. As Nature, however, provides nothing in vain, we may suppose that even these torpid, senseless creatures are wisely intended to fill up one of the great links of the chain of animated nature, and to show forth the extensive variety of the created beings which GOD has, in his wisdom constructed.12
It would be almost 20 years after its discovery by Europeans before the koala received its scientific name. In 1816, the French zoologist and anatomist Henri de Blainville tentatively gave the koala its genus name, Phascolarctos,13 from the Greek Phaskolos meaning 'pocket' or 'pouch' and arktos from the Greek for 'bear'. He did not nominate a species name as he
George Perry's highly inaccurate colour painting of a koala, c. 1810—11.
wanted his work to be reviewed. The following year, the German palaeontologist and zoologist Georg Goldfuss gave the koala the name Lipurus cinereus, with the genus name Lipurus, meaning 'tailless', and the species name cinereus, or 'ash-coloured', after the colour of the specimen's fur.14 (The scientific sketch Goldfuss drew of the koala in 1817 is featured on the cover of this book.)
As de Blainville's genus name Phascolarctos was described first, it must be used in preference to Lipurus as required under the rules of the Code of Zoological Nomenclature. This means that the koala's correct scientific name is Phascolarctos cinereus or 'ash-coloured pouched bear'.15
In December 1836 William Govatt, a surveyor who worked for the explorer Major Thomas Mitchell, wrote about the koala as part of a series called 'Sketches of New South Wales', although oddly, he called them 'monkeys':
These animals are common in New South Wales, and the accompanying sketch is a correct representation of one of them. They are generally found in thick stringy-bark forests, and are numerous on the ranges leading to Cox's River, below the mountain precipices, and also in the ravines which open into the Hawkesbury River, as well as in various other parts of the colony. They are called by some monkeys, by others bears, but they by no means answer to either species. I first took them to be a species of the sloth of [George] Buffon, and so they might be, though they differ also in many respects from that animal; and I now think that these animals mostly resemble, and come nearest to the loris, or slow-paced lemur, of India.
Having shot several, and caught them occasionally (with the assistance of the natives) alive, both young and old, which I have kept at the tents for some time, I am able, from what I have observed, to give the following description. They have four hands, having naked palms, which are armed with crooked pointed nails, exceedingly sharp, and rather long. They are covered with fur of a bluish-gray colour, very thick, and extremely soft. It is darker on the back, and paler under the throat and belly, but slightly tinged with a reddish-brown about the rump. The nose is somewhat elongated, and appears as if it was tipped with black leather. The ears are almost concealed in the thickness of the fur, but have inwardly long whitish hairs. The eyes are round and dark, sometimes expressive and interesting. The mouth is small, and they have no tail. Their countenance altogether is by no means disagreeable, but harmless-looking and pitiful. They seem formed for climbing trees, but they are rather slow in motion, and but moderately active. Like many other animals of the colony, they are drowsy and stupid by day, but become more animated at night, and when disturbed they make a melancholy cry, exciting pity. They feed upon the tops of trees, selecting blossoms and young shoots; and they are also said to eat some particular kinds of bark. When full-grown, they appear about the size of a small Chinese pig. They are certainly formed differently from every other species of the quadrumana, and it is probable they possess different enjoyments. They are very inoffensive and gentle in manners, if not irritated. The first I ever saw of these animals was caught in a particular manner by a native, and as we witnessed his manoeuvres with considerable curiosity, it may afford some interest to relate the anecdote.
We were ascending very early in the morning Mount Tou-rang, one of the trigonometrical stations in Argyle. When the native perceived a very large monkey in the act of ascending a tree, he caught it, and being desirous of preserving the animal, we tied it with some silk kerchiefs to the trunk of a small tree, intending to take it to the camp on our return. About sunset we were descending the mountain, and did not forget the prisoner; but, lo! on arriving at the spot the creature was gone. The native shook his head, whistled, and commenced examining the neighbouring trees, when presently he espied the animal perched upon the top of a high tree, quite at home. 'Me catch the rascal directly,' said the black, and proceeded first to cut a thin pole about ten feet in length. He next tore a long strip of ropy bark, which he fastened to one end of the pole, in the form of a loop or noose, after which he commenced climbing the tree in good spirits, and confident of success. The animal, on observing the approach of his enemy, ascended higher and higher till he reached the very extremity of the leafy bough on the top of the tree, while the native, mounting as high as he could safely go, could but scarcely reach him with his pole. For a long time he tried to get the noose over the head of the monkey, and several times when the native imagined he had succeeded, the monkey, at work with his fore-hand, would repeatedly tear it off and disengage himself. The poor animal, as he looked down upon his perplexing adversary, looked truly piteous and ridiculous, and we began to think that the black would fail in his attempt.
The native, however, growing impatient and angry, ascended a step higher, till the very tree bended with his weight. He tried again, and having succeeded in slipping the noose over the monkey's head, immediately twisted the pole so as to tighten the cord. 'Me got him rascal,' he exclaimed, as he looked downward to see the best way of descending. 'Come along, you rascal, come, come, come,' he cried, tugging away at the monkey, who seemed unwilling to quit his post. Down they came by degrees, the black cautiously managing his prisoner, every now and then making faces at him, and teasing him, with great apparent delight and satisfaction to himself. We could not but observe the cautious manner in which he appeared at times to treat the monkey but this caution we soon perceived was very necessary, for when they had descended to where the tree divided into two branches, the black endeavoured to make the animal pass him, so that he might have better command over him, In so doing the monkey made a sort of spiteful catch or spring at the native, but which he cleverly avoided by shifting himself to the other branch with great dexterity. At length, however, both the man and the monkey arrived nearly to the bottom of the tree, when the latter, being lowermost, jumped upon the ground, got loose, and having crawled to the nearest tree, commenced ascending again. We seized him by the rump, thoughtless of danger, but soon thought it advisable to quit our hold, when the native, now enraged, sprung to his tomahawk, and threw it with such force at the unlucky animal as to knock him clean off the tree. We took the animal to the camp, where it was
soon despatched, as we thought, from its pitiful cries, that it was suffering torture from the blow of the tomahawk.16
George Waterhouse, Curator of the Zoological Society of London, followed the contemporary train of thought in his 1841 book on Australian marsupials, when he wrote that the 'koala is a native of New South Wales, and, like the other Phalangers [possums], climbs trees, feeding no doubt upon the leaves, buds and fruits. It is said to resemble a small bear in its mode of climbing'. 17
Prussian-born geologist William Blandowski published his field-based observations of the koala in 1855 in the Transactions of the Philosophical Society ofVictoria1 Blandowski had arrived in Australia in 1849, intending to compile a natural history, a botanical classification and a geological arrangement of the country. From 1856 to 1857 he led an expedition to investigate the natural history of the region at the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers, collecting 17 400 specimens, most of which were supposed to be taken to the National Museum in Victoria. On his return, however, Blandowski did not report back to the Museum, and retained most of the specimens. As a result he was threatened with legal action so in 1859 he returned to his native Silesia19 where he published various scientific papers relating to Australia.
Drawing of the koala from George Waterhouse's Marsupialia or Pouched Animals published in 1841.
During an earlier expedition into central Victoria, in 1854— 1855, Blandowski had noted that:
the koala or karbor (Phascolarctos cinereus) frequents very high trees, and sits in places where it is most sheltered by the branches, hence it is with difficulty detected, especially as its fur is of the same colour as the bark of the tree on which it sits. This remarkable animal, like the cat, has the power of contracting and expanding the pupil of the eye. Its skin is remarkably thick, and the back is covered with dense woolly fur. It is very difficult to skin, and the natives regard it with the same superstition as the wombat, already mentioned. The male has a gland on the breast which emits a very strong and offensive odour. The koala uses the two first toes on the fore paws jointly for the thumb; it is a very inactive animal, being known to remain several days on the highest branch of a tree, without any other motion than that of drawing the branches to it, on the leaves of which it feeds. Even when shot [at] it merely shrinks at the report of the gun, but in nowise offers to move. The natives aver that the koala never drinks water, and from the insufficiency of opposite testimony on this point, it is highly probable that such is the case; as I have myself kept one alive for three weeks without being able to induce it to drink. When thus placed in confinement, it barks in a melancholy tone during the night, like a dog. In September the young koala is in the last period of dependency upon its parent, and may be observed sitting on the back of the mother.20
One of the first to comment on the scarcity of the koala was the famous English biologist John Gould. Despite his humble origins as the son of the foreman-gardener at Windsor Castle, where he had to collect dandelions for Queen Caroline's tea, Gould learned taxidermy, which was to be of great benefit to him in the years to come.21 In 1827 Gould was appointed taxidermist for the Museum of the Zoological Society of London and three years later, he published the first of the long series of folio volumes of bird and mammal illustrations, which would bring him fame and financial independence.22 Gould spent the years between 1838 and 1840 in Australia, travelling with his wife, Elizabeth, and his collector, John Gilbert. One of the wonderful products of this visit was The Mammals of Australia, in 13 parts, published between 1845 and 1863. Although some of his more academic colleagues regarded Gould's approach as unscientific, his work was meticulous and 45 of the Australian mammal species (and numerous birds) described by him are still recognised.
While traversing the region between Sydney and Moreton Bay (Brisbane), Gould made extensive notes on the koala.
He spent some time among the cedar brushes of the mountain ranges of the interior, particularly those bordering the well-known Liverpool Plains. In all these localities the koala is to be found, and although nowhere very abundant, a pair, with sometimes the addition of a single young one, may if diligently sought for, be procured in every forest.23
Gould also noted the Aborigines' partiality for the meat of the koala and their expertise in finding them:
However difficult it may be for the European to discover them in their shady retreats, the quick and practised eye of the Aborigine readily detects them, and they speedily fall victims to the heavy and powerful clubs which are hurled at them with the utmost precision. These children of nature eat its flesh, after cooking it in the same manner as they do that of the Opossum and the other brush animals.24
Gould was pessimistic about the koala's future, predicting that 'like too many others of the larger Australian mammals, this species is certain to become gradually more scarce, and ultimately extirpated'.25
It was not until the 1870s that many of the misconceptions regarding the koala were finally addressed. Gerard Krefft had been appointed Assistant Curator of the Australian Museum in 1860 and Curator and Secretary the following year, posts which he held until 1874. Although he at first cooperated (under instruction) with the eminent English naturalist Richard Owen by sending fossil specimens to England, Krefft later began to publish his own, opposing views and so founded Australia's own vertebrate palaeontological community. This independence of thought appears to have led to acrimonious quarrels with several of the Museum's Trustees who dismissed him. When Krefft refused to leave the building, he was unceremoniously picked up, still in his chair, and forcibly ejected into the street. Despite this ignominious end, Krefft had established himself as Australia's foremost mammal palaeontologist.
In his Mammals of Australia, published in 1871, Krefft described the koala as the 'often misnamed "native bear". Has no relation whatever with the bear family, but belongs to the marsupial or pouched section of the animal kingdom, and closely related to the common phalanger [brushtail possum]'. He also proposed that the 'form of the molars indicates that the animal is herbivorous, though the presence of canines shows that its food may be varied by insects, eggs, or even flesh. As far as our experience goes, the koala will not touch meat in captivity; and if its proper food—fresh young gum leaves—is not provided, the creature soon pines away and dies'.26 Krefft also discussed the mode of birth of marsupials, which he said had been much debated:
they are believed by some to grow on to the teat. This is not the case, however, as they have frequently been found in the uterus. How they are conveyed thence to the teat will probably remain a secret for some time to come. The flesh of the koala is not very palatable, owing to the nature of the animal's food. The skin makes excellent leather and good serviceable foot-mats.27
Krefft was the first to comment on the koala's broad distribution, when he stated:
the south-eastern part of Australia is the stronghold of these animals, the mountainous districts of Victoria and New South Wales are their favourite localities; they are also found in Queensland to within the very tropics, but always keep to the mountain ranges, and never visit the plains of the interior. They have a peculiar harsh and shrill voice when angry, but are generally silent at other times, and very harmless.28
Although many of these early observations were incorrect, sometimes bizarrely so, they were at times insightful and even prescient of the fate that would befall the koala in later years. They also laid the foundation of the koala's popularity, both within Australia and throughout the scientific world, and encouraged research into its ecology and conservation.
Was this article helpful?