The iconic marsupial, climbing high in tree branches, is Australia’s answer to primates
There are no monkeys in Australia, but who cares? Koalas specialized in climbing the tree and even formed a gait similar to primates.
Koalas could be the take on monkeys and apes from Australia.
Says Christofer Clemente from the Sunshine Coast University in Sippy Downs, Australia, Pudgy, big-eared koalas are celebrity marsupials, nurturing teensy young in pouches as a kangaroo does. In koalas’ home trees, however, “we found they’re actually not moving like other marsupials,” Christofer Clemente added, “They’re moving more like primates.”
Australia has no trees that are full of primates. So Koalas developed a similar gait in treetops independently. All tree-hugging lines often navigate trunks and branches by diagonally coupling the limbs for example by moving the right hand and the left foot forward while gripping the other pair.
As with many primates, in the Journal of Experimental Biology, this movement stabilizes koalas as they walk, Clemente, an evolutionary biomechanist, and his colleagues report on December 17.
It requires a good grip, and koalas have two thumbs on their hands: two short digits separated by a gap from three longer ones. Hind limbs also have an appendage to the thumblike.
When koalas come down to the ground reluctantly, their top speed, about 10 kilometers per hour, comes in a common marsupial bounding motion with the hind legs landing together.
Bounding across the ground can be about four times faster than moving in trees, but it still leaves koalas vulnerable to predators, especially dogs that are now common in Australia.
In fact, this study of six captive animals grew out of concerns about declining populations of koala forced to cross perilous ground as increasingly fierce fires destroyed trees


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