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Koalas: From Aboriginal dreamtime to scientific discovery

Koalas: From Aboriginal dreamtime to scientific discovery

At NRMA Insurance, we love koalas and are committed to protecting their homes. But we’re not the first people to fall for our tree-dwelling friends - from Aboriginal storytelling to scientific discovery, koalas have long been one of Australia’s favourite marsupials and have always been a big part of our history and culture. Here are our favourite koala history tidbits:

  • Many, many moons before lending its image to everything from team mascots to chocolate bars, the koala was symbolic for Australia’s first peoples. Aboriginal Dreamtime stories arrived along with the earliest inhabitants of the continent 40,000 years ago and tell of a wise, sometimes sly creature whose tail was lost to a kangaroo. The koala even created rainbows and rowed boats. 

  • Aboriginal rock art at Berowra Waters north of Sydney - where the koala is depicted being held by an unidentified, perhaps mythical creature - was made some 25,000 years ago.

  • Long before that, other koalas lived in our trees, with some species going back 20 million years. Fossilised skull and skeleton remains of the Litokoala dicksmithi (named after entrepreneur and philanthropist, Dick Smith), found in north-western Queensland, suggest a small, nocturnal and agile creature.

  • Our modern-day koalas, with their larger frame and generally slow pace, at first evaded, then confounded, European settlers when they arrived in the late 18th Century. It took a full decade for white men to spot koalas and the first written account of a koala sighting details an encounter in Bargo, south-west of Sydney, on January 26th, 1798. 

  • What exactly the creature was stumped the newcomers. “There is another animal which the natives call a Cullawine, which much resembles the Sloths in America”, reads the account by John Price, diarist and servant to Governor John Hunter. He was also shown a “Whom-batt”, which he describes as “very fat” and badger-like. (It turns out that the koala that Price noted was part of the same Campbelltown koala community that lasts until this day.)

  • In 1802, explorer Ensign Francis Barallier wrote that he met Aboriginal hunters “who had brought portions of a monkey (in the native language Colo), but they had cut it into pieces … I sent these two feet to the Governor preserved in a bottle of brandy.” He had wanted the head, he added, but made do with the unfortunate koala’s feet, for which he exchanged two spears and a tomahawk. 

  • The first published image of a koala appeared in 1811 - although it was labelled a “Kaolo” and was unfairly described by George Perry as “void of elegance … they have little either in their character or appearance to interest the Naturalist or Philosopher.” 

  • By that time, specimens had been sent to London for examination and news of the exotic creatures had long been revealed to curious onlookers around the world. 

  • But it wasn’t until 1880 that the first live koala made it to England, its diet of gum leaves alone making the 10,000-mile voyage inadvisable at best. Its new life in an environment that was unsuitable to koalas in every way came to a sad finale when it became entangled and suffocated in a washing stand. Koalas, it turned out, were best left in their natural habitat. Australia is and always will be a koala’s home!

  • We’re as interested in koala’s futures as their long history and NRMA is committed to helping our koalas and protecting their homes. We’re planting a koala-friendly tree for every home insurance policy sold until the end of the year and we’ve partnered with Conservation Volunteers Australia to deliver real action for koalas and their habitats. We’d love you to get involved and join us as we volunteer on koala-friendly projects, spot koalas in the wild and meet our favourite marsupials
Disappearing Rainforest & Bushlands for Commercial Purposes' by Danny Eastwood. Artwork provided courtesy of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative


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