What’s half a metre long, weighs 3-4kg, and has the cutest face you ever did see?
Yup, there it is! This, dear readers, is a quokka. A native of South west Australia, this marsupial has recently skyrocketed to fame because of the way its mouth seems to rest in an adorable little smile. A quick Google image search will reveal hundreds of awesome pictures (that aren’t licensed under creative commons) and a growing number of quokka selfies. It looks so happy that it has even been dubbed the mortal enemy of Grumpy Cat.
So, what’s the deal?
The quokka is a vegetarian (one of those darn salad-eaters) that prefers leaves and stems. Since its habitat is so dry, it will swallow its food whole only to regurgitate it later, chew it up, and swallow again in order to make sure it sucks out all of the moisture. Their digestive systems are tuned to allow survival in the dry climate of Western Australia. This means that when humans try to feed the quokkas with bread or give them water, the poor animals can go into toxic shock and die. For the love of all that is cute in this world, do not feed quokkas.
Like other marsupials, quokkas have a very short pregnancy of only one month, followed by five or six months of pouch-time. Unlike most other marsupials, quokkas have the ability to double down on their reproduction. The day after giving birth and moving the joey to their stomach pouch, female quokkas will mate again and will pause the development of the new foetus in a process known as embryonic diapause. If the joey in the pouch doesn’t make it (quokka-god forbid), the female can resume the embryo and still call the season a reproductive win.
One thing the quokka’s PR people (who have done an excellent job so far, by the way) might not want you to know is that female quokkas, when threatened by predators, will quite literally throw their babies under the bus. They will eject their joey and head for the hills, hoping that the predator takes the easy prey and they get to live another day.
For the readers out there still keen to snap the perfect selfie, the best place to find quokkas is on Rottnest Island, a tiny, 19km2 bit of land off the coast of Perth. [Non sequitur – I can’t help but hear “Purse” said with a lisp whenever I come across Perth.] The island was named Rottnest (Rat’s Nest) by a dutch explorer who thought the resident quokkas looked like “a kind of rat as big as a common cat”.
Just like the selfie stick we know is lurking out of the frame of all those hilarious pictures, disaster may be around the corner for the quokka. The Australian Government rates the Rottnest Island population as stable, but the quokka’s mainland habitats are under threat from foxes (an invasive species) and forest clearing. These threatened mainland populations are especially important because they contain much more genetic diversity than the island groups. The IUCN classifies the quokka as Vulnerable, one step above Endangered. This is due not to the population size (upwards of 10 000), but rather to the extremely small range and susceptibility to environmental change.
The quokka is a species of very cute and biologically strange marsupial whose Australian home is under a myriad of threats. Why the internet is currently abuzz with it remains a mystery, but there are certainly some adorable pictures to be taken and some interesting things to be learned.