Taxonomy

Taxonomic classification, or taxonomy, is used to help identify all living things, that is, all the different animals, plants and other organisms on earth, and to group them together with related species.

Most of these groups, and the organisms grouped in them, have scientific names in Latin - other scientific names are from the Greek language. The names have meanings which may relate to certain features shared by the organisms in that group or they sometimes reflect the names of people, such as early naturalists and explorers, often the ones who first discovered them.

The organisms in each group all share some features in common with the other organisms in that group. For instance, if we see that an animal is classified in the Sub-class Marsupialia, we would know that it is a marsupial, and therefore a mammal which gives birth to very tiny young which attach to one of the mother’s teats and develop generally in the safety of a pouch.

All living things are divided into seven main groups, called Kingdoms. Each of the seven Kingdoms is then divided into several smaller groups called Phyla (the plural of Phylum) then those groups are divided into even smaller ones again, and so on, each with less species. This means that as you get further down the chain of groups, there are more groups but less organisms in each group.

All the animal species on earth are classified in the Kingdom Animalia.

TAXONOMIC CLASSIFICATION, or TAXONOMY, FOR THE KOALA. Scientific name: Phascolarctos cinereus
KINGDOM: Animalia It’s an animal. There are many thousands of species of animals (SAY: an-im-ay-lee-a)
PHYLUM: Chordata It has a spinal cord (SAY: cor-dar-ta)
SUB-PHYLUM: Vertebrata It has a backbone (SAY: ver-teb-rar-ta)
CLASS: Mammalia It has mammary glands to feed its young on milk and has fur. (SAY: mam-ay-lee-a)
Sub-Class: Marsupialia It gives birth to immature young which attach to a teat and develop in the safety of a pouch (SAY: mar-soop-ee-ar-lee-a)
ORDER: Diprotodontia The second & third digits, or toes, on its hind feet are fused together, except for its claws, and it has a single pair of incisors, or sharp teeth, in its lower jaw (SAY: die-pro-to-don-tee-a)
Sub-Order: Vombatiformes There are only 2 families of these – Koalas and wombats (SAY: vom-bat-ee-for-mays)
FAMILY: Phascolarctidae The Koala is the only one (SAY: fas-co-lark-tid-ay)
GENUS: Phascolarctos (SAY: fas-co-lark-tos)
SPECIES: Cinereus (SAY: sin-ear-ree-us)
COMMON NAME: Koala
SUB-SPECIES: Although many scientists describe 3 sub-species of Koalas, others say that there are only 2. There are some gradual differences in Koalas in their range from the north to the south which are likely to be adaptations to the differences in temperature in those areas. Here are the sub-species identified by some scientists:
Sub-species 1: Phascolarctos cinereus adustus - Northern or Queensland distribution
Sub-species 2: Phascolarctos cinereus cinereus - Intermediate or New South Wales Distribution
Sub-species 3: Phascolarctoscinereus victor - Southern or Victorian distribution – also includes Koalas in South Australia.

Sub-species

There appears to be some difference of opinion amongst the scientific community about whether there are 2 or 3 sub-species (or 'races') of Koalas, or even if there are any sub-species at all. Currently, two or three different sub-species are generally named:  Phascolarctos cinereus adustus from northern Queensland, Phascolarctos cinereus cinereus from New South Wales and Phascolarctos cinereus victor from Victoria, with the NSW sub-species being the most debated.  Taxonomic classification of these three sub-species is based on differing physical characteristics. The main differences are that Koalas in the south are quite a bit larger than those in the north and they also have thicker, fluffier, often darker and sometimes brownish fur. They have most likely evolved or adapted in this way, in part, because the winters in the south are colder than in the north. The Koalas in the middle of eastern Australia fall somewhere in between these 2 extremes.  The distribution of the three sub-species has not yet been defined but has been delineated by the state boundaries.  More DNA research is showing that there are no clear boundaries for what, until now, have been considered to be different sub-species, but that there is a continuum from north to south.  The most important thing is that Koalas across Australia need to be managed differently, according to their differing location needs.

More information:  Sherwin, W. B., Timms, P., Wilcken, J., and Houlden, B (2000) ‘Analysis and Conservation Implications of Koala Genetics’ in Conservation Biology, Vol 14, No 3, June 2000, p639.

The meaning of the scientific name for the Koala: Phascolarctos cinereus.

‘Phacolarctos’ comes from 2 Greek words: ‘phaskolos’ meaning ‘pouch’ and ‘arktos’ meaning ‘bear’. Cinereus means ash-coloured (grey).

Of course we know now that Koalas are not bears, but in the days when the Koala was given its scientific name, around the time of European settlement just over 200 years ago, few people except the Aborigines (the native peoples of Australia), had ever seen a pouched animal (or marsupial). The scientists who gave the Koala the scientific name we know it by today were from Europe and the closest mammals they could relate the Koala to at that time were bears.

Marsupials

Marsupials are also known as metatherian mammals, and are one of three classifications of mammals. The others are the monotremes (the native Australian platypus and echidna are the only members of this group) and the eutherian, or placental, mammals to which all other mammals belong.

The most widely known characteristics of marsupials which differentiate them from other mammals is that, for most, after a very short gestation period, they give birth to immature young which then develop further in the protection of the mother’s pouch. Some species instead have protective folds of skin which may be permanent, or may only develop at the onset of reproduction. There are other differentiating characteristics as well. (For detailed information on the characteristics of marsupials, see ‘Metatheria’ on Animal Diversity Web.) There are just over 270 species of marsupials. About 72 of these are found in Central and South America, one, the opossum, in North America, and a few in Papua New Guinea. However, by far the largest number of marsupial species, around 200, are found in Australia. Australian marsupials include wallabies and kangaroos, including tree kangaroos, possums, Tasmanian devils, bilbies, quolls, numbats, phascogales, quokkas and many others, including the recently-extinct Tasmanian tiger (thylacine). The closest relative to the Koala is the wombat.

Where does the word ‘Koala’ come from?

The many Aboriginal tribes spoke different languages and they had different names for the Koala. Just a few of these names were: colo, koolah, boorabee, karbor, colah, kaola, burrenbong and koolewong. You can see that some of these names are a little similar to ‘Koala’.

It’s thought that the common name the Koala is known by today came from a word for the Koala in one of these languages. It’s commonly thought that it means ‘no drink’ in that language. Although they can drink if they need to, Koalas do not often need to drink as they get most of the moisture they need from the leaves they eat, as well as from dew and rain.

However, other early settlers in some areas believed that the word ‘Koala’ used by Aborigines in those areas meant ‘biter’ or ‘angry’. Although we think of Koalas as being very gentle animals, they can bite and scratch during mating and if they are frightened, such as when they are injured or if someone tries to capture them.

References:

The Mammals of Australia, Ed. Ronald Strahan, Australian Museum/Reed Books, 1998.

Analysis and Conservation Implications of Koala Genetics. Sherwin, W.B., Timms, P., Wilcken, J., and Houlden, B. in Conservation Biology, Vol. 14, No.3, June 2000

Koalas. The little Australian we’d all hate to lose. Bill Phillips. ANPWS. Aust. Govt. Publishing Service. 1990)

The Koala Book, Ann Sharp, Australian Koala Foundation. David Bateman Ltd., 1995