Koala dealing with cars

Koalas need to do fast calculations when going near our roads, as they try adapt to the modern world.
Koalas need to do fast calculations when going near our roads.

Once a koala is down on the ground and encounters a road, things really become seriously dangerous and complicated for them.  What is a road to a koala?

A bitumen road (or even a gravel road) is a foreign surface for an animal that was already not doing so well on the ground. The koala may hear a car approaching, but what does the koala brain do with this information?

I will talk about their hearing and mechanical noises in another post, but for the purpose of this post it is fair to say that hearing a car and knowing you are in its path becomes a more complex calculation than you might think.  As humans we know that a road means the path a car will travel along, the rules it will travel by (eg speed limits and which side of the road, depending on the direction being travelled), and we know what a collision with a car will mean.

Because of these facts, we can use executive thinking skills to quite quickly decide if it safe to cross a particular road.  We know it takes some mathematical calculation ability, and we know that a person affected by alcohol is unlikely to calculate this correctly either as a pedestrian crossing a road, or as a driver encountering a pedestrian suddenly.

We also know that many scientific studies have assisted governments to determine safe driving speeds on different roads by calculating the time it would take to stop a vehicle in an urgent situation according to the environment and the road conditions.

The only safe place for the koala is high in a tree as we see Enigma in this image.
The only safe place for the koala is high in a tree.

Let’s get back to the koala who is down on the ground, with their front-facing eyes and their mind on getting to the next safe food tree.  That koala does not have the kind of sense of danger a prey animal is wired to use when moving about, and so they focus on where they are going.

To the koala, a car approaching, when it is say 50 metres away, even if they can see and hear it, is unlikely to register as a threat to them.  They are unlikely at this point to even consider that it is on a course that will cross their path, even though they are on a road.  If we consider the speed the car is moving at, then a car moving at 100kph that is 50 metres away will be on top of the koala in less than 2 seconds.  There is no chance for the koala to calculate this and be out of the way in time.

Typical NSW country road - dual carriage with soft edges and lots of vegetation.
Typical NSW country road – dual carriage with soft edges and lots of vegetation.

Let’s add another layer of complexity.  The image above shows an intersection literally on a boundary of Koala Gardens. I want to examine a few important features as they are common roadside features our koalas deal with all over the NSW East Coast.

Firstly the amount of vegetation very close to the roadside is typical and an important consideration for the koala.  If a koala was in the vegetation on either the front right or on the opposite side of the road the driver would not see it as the vegetation is far taller than a koala.  This will also mean that the koala cannot see any car until it emerges from the vegetation at which time the koala is literally on the road.  The speed limit here is 80kph, so if the koala emerges and a car is 50 metres away, there is 2.25 seconds for the koala to get out of the way.

To the brain of a koala, an approaching car that went right past when it was sitting beside the road is no different, in terms of danger, than the approaching car when the koala has moved forward slightly and is now on the road.

Vandalised sign alerting drivers to be on the lookout for koalas.
Vandalised sign alerting drivers to be on the lookout for koalas.

There are no lights on country roads, so at night, unless the koala looks directly at an oncoming car, they are very difficult for the driver to see.  There are often thick fogs at night on these country roads which reduces vision for both the driver and the koala.  This is why we have road signs advising of known native wildlife, asking drivers to take extra care.

We have seen no evidence to suggest that koalas learn about road safety, or that they teach it to their young.

Finally we are not seeing enough evidence that people truly care about our wildlife.  This roadside sign is typical of the kind of vandalism we often see here, but shows a lack of empathy and understanding of how desperate the koala situation is.

Feel free to follow, like and share~

How koala eyesight impacts on them today

Koalas are trying to adapt to the modern world but their eyesight is made for the tree tops. Maxine and Enigma are pictured here showing koala eyes.
Koalas are trying to adapt to the modern world but their eyesight is made for the tree tops.

We have discussed the way koala eyes work, or rather how they don’t work as well as the eyes of either predators or prey animals.  See koala eyesight post for more background information.

It’s more than their physical eyes however, it’s how their brains are hard-wired as well.

The koala is in an unusual position, being neither prey or predator on any real level. They are just going about their daily business of trying to get enough calories from all those eucalyptus leaves.  In the process of doing this, they really are not taking much notice of anything else (except other koalas).

Let us now remember we no longer have large areas of old growth forest providing acre after acre of trees that can be accessed through the branches in the canopy, or at least by coming partway down and jumping across.  The koala only had to see around itself, and use their highly developed sense of smell to know which trees were good and move through them.

The koala now finds itself too often, in a single tree, in the middle of an open paddock.  He eats his fill, has a sleep then has to climb down to the ground and set off in search of the next tree which may be tens or even hundreds of metres away.

Mist showing typical female koala head and eye shape
When a koala is awake they are usually hungry and needing calories.

But let us think about the fact that the eyes of the koala are not made to make sense of this – they do not see well at long distances. Their brains are not wired up to think – this trip could be dangerous and tell their eyes to be really sharp either.

Yes a koala that lives well into adulthood is going to learn to traverse particular areas and deal with particular dangers, but the problem is that less and less koalas are living through their early encounters with the dangers on the ground.  On top of this, the koalas are using up a lot more calories in order to take in each meal they find because they have to travel down the trunk, across the ground and then up the next trunk again.  This is significant as eucalyptus leaves are low in calories and they have to eat a large quantity of them already.

When they are travelling they are usually hungry, and so their primary focus is going to be on getting to a good tree for their next meal.  A koala with a full belly nearly always goes to sleep to aid digestion quite quickly.

So a koala walking through a paddock is needing calories and is unlikely to even see a dog coming for it unless the dog makes some good noise.  A car approaching from a distance does not register with the koalas eyes at all.  We will talk further about how koalas seems to respond to mechanical noises in another post.

Even what they can see is usually distanced from them as they should be up in a tree.  Jordan is pictured here sitting in a tree looking at me without a care as I am on the ground and he is in a tree.
Even what they can see is usually distanced from them as they should be up in a tree.

Finally, when a koala does see something approach them, it is normally on the ground and they are up in a tree.  Their tactic if concerned is to go higher up the tree.  If they are on the ground, by the time they realise there is something of concern it is usually too late.

This highlights the importance of planting clumps of trees and rows of trees connecting good feed clumps together so that koalas can be on the ground for less time and eating more quickly.

 

Feel free to follow, like and share~

Do koalas have good eyesight?

There is a reason koala eyesight is not so good over distances. Even when a koala looks directly at you, it will have heard you first, then had to find you by eye.
There is a reason koala eyesight is not so good over distances.

If you pose this question through Google the answer is pretty quickly returned as “no they do not”.

Now why might that be?

To understand why we need to consider the environment they had before humans came ripping through their homeland and changing everything.

Koalas are arboreal marsupials which means they live in trees, and are mammals that give birth to tiny under-developed young that crawl into a pouch to complete development for around 6 months.

Wild male koala looking down from a pink bloodwood tree - he can see me but koalas do not have good eyesight
Wild male koala looking down from a pink bloodwood tree

However, we need to think of incredible old growth forests thick with tall trees when we think of the arboreal koala.  When you live high in the canopy of a forest, there is not a lot you can see long range.  The ground is distant and hidden by the lower branches and smaller young trees.  Anything beyond the tree you are in, is likely obscured by branches and leaves from your tree or the next.

Stella is just over 12 months old and though she has bright eyes, she relies more on her hearing than her sight.
Stella is just over 12 months old and though she has bright eyes, she relies more on her hearing than her sight.

Koalas are far from blind, but their long range sight is pretty poor because it was not needed.  Koalas are skilled at jumping from trunks and branches to move about, and they look carefully to judge the distance before taking a leap.

Koalas have an acute sense of smell, and they do have keen hearing.  Sometimes it seems their hearing is not so keen because they sleep so deeply.

If you can imagine huge forests with hundreds of koalas moving through the treetops, you can maybe imagine that they didn’t bother looking to the ground or out into the sky too often.  Their focus was within the short range area of the tree they were currently occupying.

Koalas are said to have no natural predators, but this isn’t completely true.  However the only predators that were of any real concern to koalas in the past were usually only a concern for joey’s and small juveniles, and only if they were not in the treetops.  The main predators that may take a small number of young koalas are goannas, dingoes, pythons and some powerful owls and eagles.  The incidence of these predators seems to have always been fairly low.  Coastal pythons are the only one of these predators that may attempt to take a lone young koala in the canopy.

Stevie is looking at me, but it was sound that caught her attention fast, while it took her time to find me with her eyes.
Stevie is looking at me, but it was sound that caught her attention fast, while it took her time to find me with her eyes.

This all means that koalas do not have a historical need to be on a constant lookout for predator threats, and they do not hunt as predators themselves, and so their eyesight, for long distances is somewhat poor.

Another important feature of koala sight is that their eyes are ‘forward facing’ like our eyes. This puts the koala outside the general rule which says – ‘eyes to the side, run and hide; eyes to the front, love to hunt’.  Koalas don’t hunt, and yet they did not have any real need to run and hide either, and so they have eyes that face the front which give better depth perception. It’s also one of the features that makes them look so endearing to humans.

Enigma shows us a perfect example of the forward facing eyes of a koala. Koala eyesight however is not very good over long distances.
Enigma shows us a perfect example of the forward facing eyes of a koala.

The impact for koalas in adapting to the environment we have created by invading their home is huge when you understand their eyesight limitations.

Feel free to follow, like and share~