It turns out that King Louie isn’t the only one who wants to walk like a different species. After studying six koalas in Queensland Zoo, researchers have discovered that the marsupials climb trees the same way apes do.
When walking across a branch, the koalas grip with opposite hands and feet and take slow steps to keep their balance, which scientists believe is only possible because of the koala’s ability to cling with both their fore and hind feet.
“This specific gait pattern, which is linked to greater stability, is rarely seen outside of primates,” said study author Dr Christofer Clemente, who works at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia.
When on the ground, however, koalas move much like other marsupials; bounding across the floor at top speeds of 11 km/h.
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The team observed six koalas at the zoo’s enclosure, filming their movements in 3D to analyse gait patterns. They recorded just under 200 strides, across four different terrains: over ground, horizontal, inclining and declining.
As the koala’s eucalyptus diet provides them with little energy, the researchers spent some time waiting for movement.
When they do move, it is usually to search for a mate, food or water. In their natural habitat, they will commonly take to the treetops, and so must develop strategies for navigating this precarious environment.
“Some days were more exciting than others in terms of koala activity; they do a lot of sleeping,” said Clemente. “We occasionally saw leaps of over one metre from branch to branch, or a koala moving along a branch while hanging underneath just using their forelimbs.”
This ape-like method of climbing evolved independently to primates’ own strategy, as scientists know the marsupial evolutionary lineage separated from the placental mammals long before any primates were present on Earth.