This dear little lady has been a friend since 29th March 2006 – can you believe that? 9.5 years! Emma has been delighting international travellers for nearly 10 years. Aren’t we lucky to know her?
We are not sure exactly how old she is, but in 2006 we thought she looked around 3-4 years old. That would make her at least 12 or 13 years old now.
Emma has always been a small female, and has never been seen with a joey. Though that sounds surprising, its not. A high proportion of our wild females never raise a joey. Of eleven females currently living in our main research area, only three have ever been seen with joeys. A few of those females are new, so may produce young, but this has been the pattern over all of our 17 years of koala research, both in the You Yangs and Brisbane Ranges.
We are not sure of the reason, but we can’t just assume its chlamydia. Though the You Yangs & Brisbane Ranges populations are Chlamydia-positive, the disease rarely manifests in any way we can see. Chlamydia could be the cause, but it could be something else. Or it could be normal for koalas to have a low birth rate in these habitats.
It doesn’t matter to us whether she is a mother or not – she is a valuable member of the koala community and we love her!
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.
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.
Step 3. Compare the first koala (Truganina) to this koala below (Pat). Look just at the target area – can you see the differences?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. We will credit you!
In the gum-tree woodlands of south-eastern Australia, koalas are getting excited! It’s breeding season! Most of the activity occurs at night, so if you are camping, or lucky enough to live, near koalas you will hear the males’ distinctive singing – one male will start, to be answered by another, and so on… You may even hear the females “yack, yack, yack” call. It might sound like they are fighting, and it is rough, but hey… each to their own I say! Check out our video of Smoky and Ngallo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLawsUNDXec&feature=share&list=PLD4AA667B59D66E83
The great thing about breeding season is that koalas concentrate into one area, and become more active. You are more likely to see them walking on the ground, chasing or even fighting each other, alert and awake.
Telltale signs of foreplay in koalas: 2 koalas in one tree! Even if they appear to be showing no interest in each other, don’t be fooled. Koalas are masters of playing it cool!
Great places to listen out for breeding koalas: You Yangs Regional Park, Brisbane Ranges National Park, Raymond Island, Tower Hill and Double Creek near Mallacoota.
2. COOLART HOMESTEAD & WETLANDS. Just an hour and a bit out of Melbourne, Coolart has a lovely old Homestead, but even lovelier wetlands! Lately there have been some nice birds seen there, including a Freckled Duck. This Parks Victoria property is really worth a visit – open every day (except Christmas, Boxing Days and Good Friday) 9 to 5. Entry is free.
3. BIRDS ARE GOING CRAZY IN EAST GIPPSLAND! Lately there have been sightings of a Whimbrel, Little Terns, Eastern Reef Egrets, Scarlet Honeyeaters, Little Friarbird, Cicadabird, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Koels, Topknot & White-headed Pigeons, a Brush Bronzewing, White-winged Triller, Spotted Quail-thrush and many other exciting birds in East Gippsland. It is the southern-most portion of the ranges of many birds, and this year is looking like being a stunning year for rarities. Get down there and help us! We need more birdwatchers moving through that area to get a better idea of what is there!
Anything you see that you think might be unusual, snap a few pictures and send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to get back to you, and credit you if your sighting is significant.
4. WATERWHEEL TAVERN, Lake Tyers Beach. While you’re in East Gippsland don’t miss a meal at the Waterwheel. This terrific pub has the most stunning views of the estuary and ocean beach – you can often see Little Terns from the carpark out the front! The meals and service are great too, and reasonably priced. Go to: http://www.waterwheelbeachtavern.com/ for more information.
photographing at Lake Tyers Beach
5. WILDLIFE WALKABOUT 4 day tour. This, my most favourite of all our tours, travels to East Gippsland for 4 relaxing but full days – full of wildlife, scenery, walks and excellent country hospitality! We see wild rocky waterfalls, gentle estuaries, untrodden ocean beaches, islands, mountains, rainforests, heathlands. It is just choc-full of goodness! Wildlife at this time of year is superb. The goannas and reptiles are coming out for the sun, the migratory birds have arrived, the mammals are still active in the late afternoon and there are still some wildflowers! Go to: http://www.echidnawalkabout.com.au/en/tours/wildlife-walkabout
We become very fond of our Koala friends in the You Yangs. Every one is so individual, with special idiosyncrasies that will never be seen in another koala. So it’s heartbreaking when a familiar old fella is displaced from his home by a new, virile stud. It’s nature, of course, and we have to accept that it is necessary to the health of the species. But sometimes there is a silver lining to the cloud!
Vegemite was dominant male at Big Rock track for 3 years. At first he didn’t like our attention one bit, but over time he came to tolerate us, in a rather grudging way. He would look down his aristocratic nose at us, flare his nostrils and return to sleep. He shared his home with gorgeous females Mary, Cloud and Aris. Life was good.
But it never lasts…. Along came Anzac in May 2009. He was young, very fit and looking for a palace big enough to fit his ambitions. He checked out Merle’s home on three occasions in Autumn 2009, and either rejected it, or was escorted out by big-boy Merle. Next stop was Vegemite’s house, and this he liked.
Over three months Anzac moved in on Vegemite. We don’t know whether they fought, or battled by bluff, but by August 2009 Vegemite had had enough. He left Big Rock Track and returned to the area he had occupied in 2006 before he took Big Rock Track off Tim Tam, the previous dominant male.
But Vegemite couldn’t let go of his hard-won home, and returned in early October. Maybe he was missing Mary, his beautiful partner of 3 years. Maybe he had one last try at beating Anzac. But, after one last visit on 25 October 2009, he left the area entirely, and was next found 3.5km away to the east, outside of the You Yangs Park. He was carrying a few new scars.
We thought it was the last time we would see our old friend.
A year later – 11 November 2010 – we rediscovered Vegemite on East Boundary Track in the eastern portion of the You Yangs Park. At first we couldn’t believe it. But when you know somebody that well, their face is imprinted on your memory. His nose pattern (our method of identifying individuals) is still the same. He has even more scars, but he is looking very well. We’ve since seen him three more times, so we think he has made this area his new home. He has a few lovely ladies hanging around too!
We have always wondered what happens to males after they’ve been displaced. Some probably die from fight injuries, others might travel long distances looking for a home. Some possibly stay nearby, but in sub-optimal habitat. The strong ones, like Vegemite, may succeed in becoming dominant male a second time in another area. He is just one example, but what a great opportunity to monitor one male’s ongoing progress!
Springtime is breeding season for many animals – but for koalas, whose long breeding season goes from October to March, these early days seem to be the time for males to sort out their rivals. I’m sure they would prefer to be breeding, but those pesky females are just not ready yet so the boys have to do something!
In Springtime in 2006 we watched young male Vegemite oust Tim Tam from his Big Rock Track home range. Then in springtime 2009 young Anzac displaced Vegemite from the same home range that he’d taken off Tim Tam three years earlier. Now, in October 2010 Merle – the dominant male of Red Gum Gully – has disappeared. And his nearest rivals Ngallo and Anzac have appeared in northern Red Gum Gully, in an area very much “owned” by Merle. Oops! There’s trouble brewing!
Merle has been the number one fella in Red Gum Gully since we first started monitoring koalas in the You Yangs in January 2006. His reign has been absolute and unwavering – only old males Calvin (in 2006 & 2007) and Tim Tam (in 2008) really dared to cross Merle’s boundary for long. Any other male trespassers speedily disappeared. Koalas are not considered strictly territorial – that is, they don’t defend their home range against intruders all the time. In other parts of Victoria dominant males are known to share parts of their home ranges with up to ten other males* But in the You Yangs, in a less densely populated area, we have noticed that the level of overlap by males is little. Merle’s domination of Red Gum Gully has been almost exclusive for four years.
So how does he keep other males away? We know that male koalas fight, but in 12 years of monitoring koalas I have never seen a fight between males. Maybe it doesn’t happen often in low density populations. Perhaps it happens at night in Spring, when we are not watching.
What we have seen is a fair bit of intimidation.
In early December 2009, Merle’s northern neighbours Vincent and Ngallo were seen sharing a tree in Merle’s home range. Younger Vincent was perched high at the far end of the branch and was looking very uncomfortable. He was facing outwards, back to Ngallo, sitting up stiffly, hardly moving but wide awake the whole time we watched. Ngallo was in the lowest fork, relaxed and sprawling, eyes closed – but in such a location that Vincent would have to pass him to get out of the tree. Merle could not be found that day, but guess what? The next day he was back! Merle was exactly where the two boys had been, Ngallo had moved east and was looking nervous, and Vincent was nowhere to be found!
In the Brisbane Ranges in 2004 we saw the same behaviour – this time it was dominant male Blaze and younger male GP. It was 10 October, and dominant male Blaze was in a tree that had been one of his favourites for years. Young GP had just moved into the area and decided to take on the old fella. GP was sitting in a lower fork so that Blaze would have to pass him to get out. Blaze had his back turned to GP, but didn’t seem nervous. Actually, we think Blaze won that day, as he stayed in his home range until June 2005. GP disappeared for a while, then returned in August and October 2005 after Blaze had left.
And just yesterday (October 22, 2010) we saw Arne intimidating young Eugen at Big Rock Track North. Eugen has visited Arne’s home range recently – we first saw him in late September. Then yesterday Eugen was sitting stiffly at the furthest end of a branch gazing nervously outwards. Like Vincent, he was never seen to rest. He even climbed around on the branch as if looking for a way out. Arne, like Ngallo, was sleeping unconcernedly in the main fork of the same tree.
Close interactions between adult koalas are few. Just seeing two koalas share the same tree is really unusual. We’ve only recorded male koalas sharing trees on six occasions over six years – these three above, and another two in the You Yangs – one in Spring, another in Summer. Another one was immediately after a bushfire, so we’re taking that out of the equation. Considering that we observe around 1000 koalas every year, that is a pretty low incidence. If you ever see two adult koalas sharing a tree, we would love to know – email me pictures of each koala and one photo of the whole tree showing both koalas, date, time and a GPS location, if you can! E: email@example.com
*Martin, R & Handasyde, K: The Koala, Natural history, conservation and management. UNSW Press Second Edition 1999. page 54
We first met Karen in May 2006 in a poor-looking habitat that had been badly burnt in the 1985 fire, and had barely recovered. Large, indigenous eucalypts were few but there were lots of small, skinny Golden Wattles and many Brown Mallets, a few Yellow Gums and Red Ironbarks, and a couple of fairly big Blue Gums. As a home for koalas, it was a bit of a mess really.
Karen was a small female, and probably about 6 years old when we met her. She was nervous, and we got the feeling she hadn’t had much contact with people. We took it slowly, staying well away, and she relaxed over time. There were a lot of other female koalas around the area at that time – Eureka, Emma, Rosa and Raini all used Karen’s home range at times, and nearby lived Smoky with baby Pat, Maya, Mary and Zelda. So maybe this poor little patch of habitat was the best Karen could manage.
Towards the end of 2006 Karen started moving out of that poor area. She appeared near the Valley Picnic Ground next to young male Merle. She must have been impressed by him, as soon after she showed up in Red Gum Gully, the home of Merle. Little did we know then, but a beautiful “friendship” was forming! On her next visit to Red Gum Gully we think Merle made advances towards her. They were sharing a tree, we heard a scuffle, and next thing we knew Merle was racing away at high speed across the ground. Most koala romance sounds more like a scuffle than a lovesong. So we don’t know if it was love or a fight! It may have even been a successful mating.
Through most of 2007 Karen stayed in her “new” home range of Red Gum Gully. She was only once seen back up in her 2006 range. Then summer came along, and guess what? Karen went wandering again! She appeared to the east, then, a week later, all the way up in Lower Picnic Ground. That’s a move of at least 500metres from her normal home range. It was breeding season again, so was she checking out Merle’s northern rival, Ngallo?
We don’t know what she thought of Ngallo, but she quickly returned to Red Gum Gully and spent all of 2008 there. Her special relationship with Merle continued to grow – in the next two years they were seen sharing trees on five occasions, three times in breeding season, but twice outside of the season! In the same period, resident females in the same home range were only seen sharing tree with Merle once (Smoky), and never (Pat).
On one occasion I found Merle and Karen sharing a tree – she high, he low. After some time he started to climb down the tree. He bellowed as he left, and Karen bellowed as well! As he reached the ground he continued to speak, and she to answer. I really don’t know what they were saying to each other. I have recorded it on YouTube – search Echidna Walkabout channel or go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PPxGlhTbkk
In September 2009 Mary, the dominant female at Big Rock track, died, leaving her home range vacant. For 3 months the area remained essentially unused by koalas. But it was Karen, the mobile koala, who took the opportunity in both hands and tried the new place. She appeared on Big Rock track (where she had never been seen before) on 7th Jan 2010. Then on 9th Jan she was back in her normal area of Red Gum Gully. For the rest of January she was found in her normal area. Then again in early Feb she was back at Big Rock track. For the next four months she was back and forth, new home, old home, but the trend was towards Big Rock track. By the end of May 2010 she was permanently found at Big Rock track.
And what of her boyfriend, Merle? Well, he followed her a little bit. On two occasions he was seen closer to Big Rock track than his normal range extends.
Sadly, on 13th September 2010 Karen was found on the ground, not looking well. She had been looking thin for some time. Upon examination she was found to have worn teeth (particularly the upper incisors), but more importantly, a prolapsed cervix (her inside was outside). Veterinary advice suggested that this can happen with chronic cystitis or reproductive tract disease, or diarrhoea. She didn’t have diarrhoea, so we can rule that out. Some underlying problem had been wearing her down for some time. Her age was judged to be 10 – 12 years, and her condition not considered robust enough for surgery so she was euthanased.
What does all this suggest? That some adult females do move their home range from time to time. In Karen’s case it didn’t happen quickly, though, it took months for a complete shift, with initial exploratory forays followed by longer stints in the new area. The initial exploration, both times, happened in summer – we wonder if it is connected with breeding behaviour and looking for a mate. We have noticed other female koalas moving long distances during early summer, then returning to their normal home range.
We wonder too, if declining health might cause a koala to search for better food. We’ve seen it before – Calvin, Zelda, Mary all moved around a lot just before they died. And was it significant that the resident female at Big Rock track had died, therefore opening an opportunity? Or would Karen have moved anyway? We just don’t know.
Karen has taught us a lot, and burst apart some of our preconceptions about koala behaviour. A special lady!
Special thanks to Mary and the bushwalkers on 13/9/10 who found Karen; Donna, Marilyn & Gordon at Beremboke Wildlife Shelter for caring for her, and Dr Anne Fowler at Healesville Sanctuary Wildlife Hospital for her diagnosis. The beautiful picture of Karen shown here was taken by wildlife photographer Mark Helle, and very kindly given to us.