How to Identify Koalas by Their Nose Patterns

Koalas can be easily and non-intrusively identified by the natural black and white markings inside their nostrils. These markings, ‘the nose pattern’ appear to stay the same throughout life, so can be a useful and reliable identifying feature. Over a 16 year study, monitoring 108 individual koalas in three locations, no two koala nose patterns have ever been seen to be identical, and no nose pattern has been seen to change substantially.

Step 1. Take a photograph of a koala’s nose. The best identification photos are taken from front-on and slightly below the koala. The focus should be on the nostrils, in good light (not too much shadow or contrast) and as close-up as possible.

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Koala Truganina

Step 2. Look at the white/pale pattern inside and around the nostrils. This is the ‘target area’ where the nose pattern exists. See the area inside the pink outline in the image below. Markings outside of the target area can vary throughout the life of the koala, so should be noted, but should not be relied upon for identification.

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Koala Truganina nose pattern target area

Step 3. Compare the first koala (Truganina) to this koala below (Pat). Look just at the target area – can you see the differences?

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Koala Pat nose pattern target area

Below is a comparison of the two koalas nose pattern target areas rotated to the same angle. Truganina on the left has a lot more white in her nose pattern. The white extends outside the nostril area in a few places, with a messy outline. Her lips have a lot of white too. There are black spots in the white. Pat, on right, has a simpler nose pattern. The white is almost totally confined inside the nostrils.  The pattern has a scalloped edge.

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Nose Pattern target areas – left: Truganina right: Pat

Step 4. Record the pattern.  There are three ways you can record nose patterns. Use just one, or two in combination, whatever works for you.  We use all three methods in tandem, and it works well.

METHOD 1: File the photograph in a folder on your computer for quick reference in future. Compare each new koala photograph to the existing photographs until you achieve a match by eye. These two photographs below are of the same koala, Truganina, 5 years apart. Can you see the match? This method works if you can see the match easily, and if there’s not a lot of koalas to choose from. It will help if you file carefully, and keep a record of each koala seen (see Tips below on how to do this)

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Koala Truganina 2013
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Koala Truganina 2009

METHOD 2: Trace the nose pattern with tracing paper over a printed photograph. This method is perfectly valid, quick and easy especially if you’re not computer savvy, or don’t have a lot of time. Take a photocopy or scan of your diagram, keep it handy in a binder to check against future photographs of the same koala. We still use this method as it is the quickest and handiest way to keep up to date.

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Koala Truganina photo with tracing overlay
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Koala Truganina photo and overlay tracing diagram

METHOD 3: Use a computer graphics program. This method is useful if there are several people using the method on the same koalas, or if you are not confident of making the comparison by eye. Simple graphics programs will do the job. Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro are fine – use the layers tools.

Powerful programs like GIMP are good too. The image below shows three nose pattern diagrams, created with GIMP, of the same koala nearly 5 years apart. Yellow layer = December 2013, pink layer = December 2013, blue layer = February 2009.  The similarity is astounding, particularly considering that the the nose is a soft tissue that changes shape.

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Koala Truganina graphic diagram comparison over 5 years

TIPS:

  • It helps to come up with a photo file name protocol that you use the same way each time. You can name the image with the koalas name or number and date eg. K1female120515 (first female sighted on 12th May 2015).
  • If you regularly see koalas in a number of locations, it might be good to separate the nose pattern photographs from different locations, and by sex by folder. ie Nose Patterns – YouYangs – females.
  • Record keeping will help! Keep a record of when and where a koala was seen. You can do this in the image (EXIF) information on the photo, or in a simple (or detailed) datasheet – examples below:
exampleSimpleDatasheet
Basic koala observation datasheet
exampleComplexDatasheet
Detailed koala observation datasheet
  • Side-on photographs, or photos from extreme angles can distort a nose pattern. If possible, wait or move to get a front-on view.  This image below is Truganina again, but at an angle.  You can still see her distinctive nose pattern in her right nostril, but the left pattern is obscured.

    TRUGANINAsideOn
    Koala Truganina side on
  • Deep shadows under the nostril ridge, or strong light, can hide the nose pattern. Photograph with several different settings on your camera when light is strong.  In the beautiful photo below, Cloud’s nose pattern is almost completely lost in shadow. Brightening the image on a computer graphics program may reveal the pattern.
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Koala Cloud in strong shadow
  • Flaring and closing of the nostrils can appear to change a nose pattern, but in a predictable way. Look closely at the nostril shape in your photograph to determine whether the nostril is flared or closed.

This method was discovered in 1998 and documented by Janine Duffy, President of the (brand new!) Koala Clancy Foundation and founder of Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours. We have more details if you need them, or if you have tips or observations to add please contact janine@echidnawalkabout.com.au.  We will credit you!

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