We have our first koala baby in the You Yangs research population for the season! An unknown mature female has produced what looks to be a healthy, large and confident joey. They were seen together on 1st August north of the Lower Picnic Ground
First emergence of koala joeys is expected between 6 and 7 months of age, but the first few journeys outside of the pouch are usually brief (Martin & Handasyde 1999). Also, from our own experience, mother koalas seem to be very capable of hiding young joeys. So in wild, unhabituated populations of koalas, these first tentative outside steps are probably not often witnessed by people.
When first seen, the mother was feeding on a River Red Gum, and her joey was clinging to her belly. He was reaching for leaves as his mother ate, but I didn’t see him put any in his mouth. He was quite active – wriggling around a lot, changing position often – which is why I say that he seems confident. He also seemed quite plump, and fairly large for his presumed age.
So we can assume that this sighting was not his first emergence from the pouch. From his size, I reckon that he is about 7 months old. So he was probably born in December 2009 or early January 2010.
Baby koalas start ingesting pap* between 172 and 213 days of age – 5.7 to 7.1months (Thompson 1987 in Martin & Handasyde 1999) and this continues for about a month. They start eating gum leaves shortly after they start taking pap (Martin & Handasyde 1999). So it’s not unusual that this joey was reaching for leaves – he may already be trying to eat them.
The one other koala baby we have monitored closely in this area emerged on or before 24 July 2008. He was Pitta, the first joey of Pat – one of our most frequently seen koalas. He was smaller, slimmer and much more tentative than this joey was at 1 August. We think Pitta was younger on that first sighting – perhaps closer to 6 months old. We were lucky enough to see the pair often, and we monitored his development closely. After that first sighting, Pitta was in and out of the pouch for the next month, but after 25 August he was clearly seen every time we saw Pat.
Pitta would have been born around January 2008. He quickly became a big boy. Until 20 November mother and son were always together, and often touching or holding each other. But by the start of December Pat was vigorously resisting his attempts to suckle, and was seen to smack and bite at him at times. We suspect that Pat was pregnant again (if so, this joey did not survive), which could explain her sudden determination to wean him. In January 2009 Pitta was independent and usually seen in a different tree to his mother. He disappeared about the end of January 2009 at 12 months old, presumably to find a home range of his own.
It will be very interesting to monitor the development of this joey over the next year. We would appreciate hearing of any sightings of koalas with young, particularly around the Turntable Drive area. Any koalas seen with young in the You Yangs are of great interest to our study. If possible we would love a couple of photographs showing the nose and face of the mother, and/or her back and lower flanks plus a photograph of the whole tree she is in, and a bit of detail about the location (or a GPS reading). Send to email@example.com or to Janine Duffy, PO Box 370, Port Melbourne 3207 PH: 03 9646 8249
If you do see this female and her joey, please be very quiet and move slowly around her – she is a nervous little thing. We always try to stay at least 10metres away from any wild koala, particularly nervous ones like this one. Getting closer just makes them climb up away from you. If there are a few of you, stay together on one side of the tree – nervous koalas become more stressed the more people move around at the base of their tree, particularly if those people separate. The best policy, if you can, is just to wait and give her time to relax.
*Pap – soft, micro-organism-rich material produced by a mother koala, probably in her caecum, and eaten by a baby koala. This is considered to be the mother’s way of introducing digestive organisms to the baby koala’s gut. (Martin & Handasyde 1999).
References: Martin, R & Handasyde, K: The Koala, Natural history, conservation and management. UNSW Press Second Edition 1999. pages 60 – 67