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The Koala Blog

Koala cuteness, conservation and news from the front line.

Koalas aren’t dumb, they are sleepy survivors

Are koalas dumb?

Are koalas dumb? This question has been asked many times and koala intelligence hotly debated. Here is what we know about koala intelligence combined with our experience gained from observing koala behaviour. Just because they are sleepy, docile creatures doesn’t mean they are stupid. Koalas have their own personalities, some come with more attitude than others, with their own distinctive nose patterns that help identify them. They look so darn cute it would take a hardened heart not to fall in love with them – but we digress. Let’s come back to the question at hand, are koalas dumb?

Brain to body mass ratio

Let’s start with exploring the koala brain. Some would argue that koalas aren’t very smart because they have one of the lowest brain to body mass ratios of any mammal, weighing approximately 19 grams BUT, is the brain to body weight ratio actually a meaningful way to compare intelligence? The simple answer is no – measuring intelligence is much more complex and even depends on the definition of intelligence.

Degree of gyrification of the brain

Another argument on the side of ‘koalas are dumb’ is the unusually smooth surface of koala brains – lacking folds, grooves and wrinkles – which is called the degree of gyrification found in most mammalian brains and also linked to human intelligence. Brain folding increases the surface area for neurons. Is this a measure of intelligence? It does seem to correlate to more complex cognitive processes but most animals have very different brains compared to humans and a complex brain isn’t always a better one – rodents are considered intelligent animals and have smooth brains. We can therefore say that the smoothness of the koala brain is probably not indicative of a more primitive brain.

Further reading:

Does eating eucalyptus leaves make koalas dumb?

Some people speculate that koalas are dumb because they eat poisonous leaves that hold very little nutrition, giving them no energy and causing them to be very sleepy. Yet again it depends on how you look at it.

Eucalypt trees originated between 35 and 50 million years ago in Australia and their rise coincided with an increase in fossil charcoal deposits – the land gradually drying out and the depletion of soil nutrients. Eucalypts are poisonous to most other animals and humans but the koala can detoxify eucalyptus leaves – not quite like magic but almost. Koalas have adapted to survive on toxic leaves.

Are koalas dumb?
Wild koala sitting in a large eucalypt tree

Abundance of habitat and food

Eucalyptus forests account for 77% of Australia’s total native forest area and includes approximately 800 species.

This begs the question – did koalas evolve to eat eucalypts? Only three other animals makes use of eucalypts as a food source – brushtail possum, common ringtail possum, and greater glider. By eating eucalypts are koalas stupid or opportunistic? Further reading.

Even though koalas might have evolved to eat eucalyptus leaves, human activity including the hunting of koalas, land clearing for settlement and agriculture combined with climate change means that today our beloved koala is classified as endangered.

Koalas don’t recognise the rain or leaf not on a branch

We have also heard that some people think koalas are so dumb that they don’t recognise the rain – whilst we don’t know for sure whether they do or not, we presume they do because our koalas change their behaviour when it rains including curling up into a ball, putting their waterproofed back towards the rain, moving to lower branches and also drinking the water running down the bark of trees. Australia is very hot in large parts of the country and most likely koalas like sitting in the rain and cooling off during a hot day. They sure look like they do when we put the sprinklers on in our Koala Care Centre.

Are koalas intelligent?
This koala looks like he is enjoying a quick shower

Signs of intelligence in koalas

  • Koalas have evolved to digest eucalyptus leaves – adapting to their environment.
  • As tree-dwellers, koalas navigate complex environments of tree canopys to find food and avoid predators – requiring spatial awareness and problem solving skills.
  • Koalas communicate with each other using vocalisations and scent markings which shows their social behaviour.
  • Koalas are adept at finding and selecting the best eucalyptus leaves – we have mentioned previously what fussy eaters koalas are – this could be because they are choosing leaves based on nutrient density.
  • Koalas can remember the locations of their favourite trees and navigate to them.
  • Koalas have social hierarchies and maintain relationships.

Evidence of intelligence? A koala hitching a ride in a canoe.

We do hope you have enjoyed this read – we found it fun and no matter what – koalas are certainly super super cute, very much loved by all and very much needed in the landscape. We couldn’t imagine a world without them! Let us know what you think, are koalas dumb? Perhaps you would enjoy reading more below and maybe even sign up to our monthly Joey Buddies subscription, which is a fun way to learn more about koalas and for just $5 delivered to your inbox you will receive behind the scenes photos, videos, facts, games and much more!

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