POWELL — Guests who visit the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Australia and the Islands region may discover a special surprise waiting for them.
Katy the koala’s “baby bump” is now occasionally moving as her little joey, born on July 5, 2020, is developing inside her pouch.
Koalas are marsupials, which give birth to tiny, underdeveloped young that are the size of a jellybean. Unlike other mammals that develop in their mothers’ wombs, marsupial babies have to make their way from the birth canal to their mothers’ pouch. The good news is that Katy’s joey has already achieved this major milestone.
As the joey continues to grow, the baby will be protected inside Katy’s pouch, which she can open and close using a special muscle. Currently, the joey is approximately the size of a softball, finely furred, and has recently opened its eyes.
For now, guests may catch a glimpse of a tiny arm or leg every once in a while until around mid-March when the joey will outgrow Katy’s pouch.
The pairing of first-time parents Katy and father, Thoar, was recommended by the Species Survival Plan® (SSP), a program coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to maintain genetic diversity of threatened and endangered species in human care.
Both Katy and Thoar were born at the San Diego Zoo in 2015 and arrived at the Columbus Zoo in September 2017. This is the first koala joey born at the Columbus Zoo since 2006 and the third successful joey birth since the Zoo began housing koalas in 1991.
“With only 53 koalas residing in nine AZA-accredited facilities in North America, the birth of this koala joey is an extremely significant achievement," said Columbus Zoo and Aquarium President/CEO Tom Stalf. "We are thrilled to celebrate the new year with this great news, and we are proud of our continued commitment in working to protect the future of koalas and other species across the globe."
One of Australia’s most iconic animals, koalas are native only to southeastern and eastern Australia, living in a range of habitats from the coast and woodlands to tall eucalyptus forests. Koalas are currently listed as “vulnerable” and their populations are decreasing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Ongoing habitat destruction, drought and disease on Australia’s east coast, as well as the bushfires that ripped through Australia in 2019-2020, have contributed to the koalas’ declining population. With their limited native range, koalas have lost 80 percent of their habitat.
As a result, they are specifically losing eucalyptus, which provides shelter and the main source of food for these notoriously picky eaters. Though there are more than 700 species of eucalyptus, with only about 60-100 of them being suitable for koalas to eat. However, individual koalas have their own preferences as well and may only eat 10-14 different species of eucalyptus — only 1-2 percent of the total eucalyptus species available.
Mature koalas spend up to five hours feeding on the plant leaves every day. Though eucalyptus is poisonous to other species, specialized bacteria in a koala’s digestive tract enables it to break down the plant’s toxins. Because this is a lot of work for the koala’s digestive tract, this solitary species spends the rest of the day sleeping for up to 15-20 hours per day.
A year ago, the Columbus Zoo contributed $10,000 from the Zoo’s Emergency Grants Fund to Zoos Victoria’s Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund, which directly helped animals impacted by the devastating bushfires throughout Australia.
Thanks to the generosity of our community and the Zoo’s own President/CEO, the Columbus Zoo was also able to raise an additional $27,400 to assist in recovery, rescue, and rehabilitation efforts by Zoos Victoria and the Australia Zoo. Additionally, the Columbus Zoo contributes to the conservation of Australian wildlife through a partnership with the San Diego Zoo, as well as the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.
For additional updates about the Columbus Zoo’s animals, events, and more, be sure to follow the Zoo’s social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and visit us at ColumbusZoo.org.