koala Nariah


Tonahleah: A Special Koala

Tonaleah has a new joey in her pouch!

Tonaleah has a new joey in her pouch!

Now that everyone has settled in at the San Diego Zoo’s new Australian Outback habitat, which opened in May 2013, we are absolutely thrilled with all of the positive feedback we are getting from our Zoo visitors. In fact, over in our koala harem yards we have some exciting news: one of our females, Tonahleah, has a joey in her pouch! This is the first confirmed birth in our Australian Outback. Koala joeys stay in their mom’s pouch for about six months, so we will not likely see the baby until early 2014.

Dr. Clippinger carefully replaces the newborn joey into her mother's pouch.

Dr. Clippinger carefully replaces the newborn joey into her mother’s pouch.

What makes this news even more special is the unique story of how Tonahleah came into our koala colony. In August 2009, koala Nariah was due to give birth. Being a new keeper to the Zoo, I asked my supervisor, Chris Hamlin, to accompany me to check Nariah for signs of a birth. As luck would have it, at that moment Nariah was hunched over in a birthing position—a rare sight to see. Koala joeys are about the size of a jelly bean when they are born and travel to mom’s pouch completely on their own, where they do most of their developing. Being that this was Nariah’s first joey, we didn’t want to make her nervous, so we gave her space and checked on her throughout the day. As part of my last check, I looked down at the ground and, to my surprise, a tiny pink koala joey had fallen to the ground below Nariah! The good news was that it was still moving.

We rushed Nariah and her joey to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Our veterinary staff quickly made the decision to put the joey back in Nariah’s pouch. It was a bit tricky, but one of our vets, Dr. Tracy Clippinger, did a wonderful job of getting the joey attached to the teat. Once it was secure, you could actually see the milk immediately enter into the joey’s stomach. It was a success! We are so lucky here at the San Diego Zoo to have such a wonderful vet staff. Our veterinarians, vet techs, and hospital keepers do an amazing job at keeping our animals healthy and handling emergency situations.

Tonahleah is now attached and filling up with Mom's milk.

Tonahleah is now attached and filling up with Mom’s milk.

Six months later, a perfectly healthy female joey emerged. All of our koalas have names with Aboriginal meanings. We decided to name this koala Tonahleah, which means “sun.” We thought this name was appropriate, given the fact that I found her lying on the ground in a ray of sunlight, which probably kept her warm and helped her stay alive.

This will now be Tonahleah’s third joey, and it is so special to think of all the koalas we saved by finding her on the ground that day. Those of us involved realize how lucky we are to be a part of her story, and we love telling it every chance we get. Who wouldn’t, when it has such an adorable and happy ending?

Katie Tooker is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Koala Family on Koala Cam

Sooky, as seen on Koala Cam.

Sooky, as seen on Koala Cam.

We are thrilled about the addition of the new live Koala Cam in our interim koala exhibit as we excitedly await the opening of the new Australian Outback habitat at the San Diego Zoo. Now koala enthusiasts (including us keepers) can keep an eye on our special koala girls at all times of the day and night. We love being able to check up on just what our koalas do when we are not around. Yes, although they do sleep A LOT (18 to 20 hours a day!), we now get to know them very personally and individually. Each has a very unique and endearing history and personality. I’d like to introduce you to our sweet little family in our temporary koala exhibit.

We generally keep our females together in large enclosures. Although koalas are mostly solitary, females often remain in the same territory range as their female offspring throughout their lifetime. As keepers, we can often see the bonds that develop between our female koalas, including the special ones between mothers and daughters. This group is no exception.
Orana, 17, is our oldest koala at the Zoo right now. (Koalas in managed care generally have a lifespan of 15 to 21 years.) Orana has had nine joeys over the years, which is quite impressive. She is also one of the oldest koalas known to raise a joey, giving birth to her last joey at 14 years of age.

Orana is an exceptional mother. She is always very attentive with her joeys and offers them the best koala care. You can tell that her joeys feel very bonded to her, and sometimes they have tended to stay very close to her and remain a little more dependent for a bit longer than joeys from other mothers. Although they often may be a little too big at that point to ride on her back, she always remains patient with them and lets them cuddle up with her until they are ready to become more independent.

Orana lives in the exhibit with her two daughters, Sooky and Nariah. Sooky will be 5 years old in March; she was named by the public during a Koalapalooza event at the Zoo (see Koalapalooza: A Joey is Named). Sooky is a very good-natured koala and is very tolerant with her keepers. She is also a star and has appeared on TV several times and even flew to New York to be on the Today show. Although Sooky still occasionally makes some appearances with her keepers at special events, it is likely that very soon she may be going into semi-retirement to have a joey of her own. We can’t wait to see Sooky as a mother. I’m sure she will follow in Orana’s footsteps and be a great mom.

Nariah will be 10 years old in March. She is also a very good-natured koala with her keepers. Nariah has a joey in her pouch right now that is just over 6 months old. It is sticking its head out now regularly, and we just found out yesterday that it is a girl! This fluffy little bundle of joy now joins in with her female family line in the exhibit. It is not uncommon for other females in the exhibit to babysit other females’ joeys when the joey gets a little older. A babysitter may let the joey spend time with her and ride on her back. She will eventually return the baby back to Mom after a little while or Mom will go get it.

I’m quite sure that Orana will be a wonderful grandmother and Sooky will be a great aunt to this little one. And, I suspect that once that baby gets heavier, Nariah will welcome the opportunity to have Orana or Sooky babysit for a little while to give her back a little break.

I look forward to introducing you to more of our koalas after the opening of our new Australian Outback, scheduled for May 24! I hope you all are enjoying the new Koala Cam as much as we are. And keep an eye out for a glimpse of that joey. She is very cute!

Amy Alfrey is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.