Humans may have threatened them with deforestation, but we are trying to do better by them now. The internet's newfound love for the quokka is giving them a fighting chance for recovery.
If you spend any time on the internet, you may have seen a quokka before — even if the name doesn't sound familiar. They're notorious for their fuzzy squirrel-like appearance, photogenic smiles, and their curiosity. Quokkas do not have much fear for humans, which means getting them to appear alongside you in a cute selfie isn't too hard.
It's not surprising that quokkas are often referred to as the happiest animals in the world. They always look like they're having a great time. Like any animal, they have their own set of problems, but you'd never know it because they always seem to be grinning.
To achieve your own genuine Australian quokka selfie, first you'll have to travel to Rottnest Island, just off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, where most of them live. It's a protected nature reserve, but also has a small population of full-time residents in addition to as many as 15,000 visitors a week that pay a visit to see the adorable mammals.
Next, keep in mind that you're not allowed to handle the quokkas, nor feed them any people food, but luckily they are often curious and comfortable enough to come to you. It should be noted that however domesticated they may appear, Australian quokkas are still wild animals — even if they are used to having humans around, they will still bite or scratch if they feel threatened.
What Are Quokkas?
The adorable quokka — pronounced kah-WAH-kah by Australians — is a cat-sized marsupial, and the only member of the genus Setonix — their full scientific name is Setonix brachyurus — which is a small macropod. Other macropods include kangaroos and wallabies and like these animals, quokkas also carry their young — called joeys — in pouches.
These cuties can live for up to ten years, are herbivores, and are mainly nocturnal. Despite this, you see quite a few photographed out and about during the day. Likely, they want to be where the people are ... probably because people are famous for not listening and giving the quokkas table food.
It may not seem like a big deal, but you really have to refrain from doing this. Some food, especially bread-like substances, can easily stick between quokkas' teeth and eventually cause an infection. The ailment is called "lumpy jaw", and is probably just about as much fun as it sounds for the poor things.
Other foods can cause dehydration or sickness, so if you absolutely can't resist the urge to give them a treat, stick to offering them tender, tasty leaves or grass.
How The Viral Selfie Helped Save This Vulnerable Marsupial
These adorable animals are actually considered "vulnerable to endangerment." This means that they are likely to become officially endangered unless some threatening circumstances improve. Usually, this means that the animal is losing its natural habitat in some way, and, unfortunately, it's no different for the quokka.
Agricultural development and expanded housing on the mainland reduced the dense ground cover quokkas relied on for protection from predators such as foxes, wild dogs, and dingoes. However, on Rottnest Island, their only predator is the snake. By 1992, quokkas on the mainland had been reduced in number by more than 50%. Now, only 7,500 to 15,000 adults exist in the world — most of them on Rottnest Island, where the quokka thrives.
Humans may have threatened them with deforestation, but Australia is trying to do better by them now that the internet's newfound love of quokkas has given them a fighting chance for recovery. An increased interest has garnered greater protections for these cute little animals and Australia is now very firm in its laws regarding quokkas.
It's fine to lightly interact with them (ie: selfies) but highly frowned upon to pet them or pick them up. And yes, unfortunately keeping one as a pet is highly illegal, as is taking them out of the country.
Furthermore, it's really, really illegal to do anything violent and terrible to them. It's disheartening that this has to be said, but no using them as soccer balls or setting them on fire. Yes, apparently there are humans this heartless.
Things just don't get much cuter than quokka babies. A female quokka gives birth to a single baby after being pregnant for about a month. After birth, the joey stays in its mother's pouch for another six months and it's pretty common to see little joey's heads sticking out of their mom's pouch as they go about their adorable quokka life.
After six months in the pouch, the joey starts to wean itself off its mothers' milk and learns how to find wild food. Male quokkas will defend their mates when pregnant but don't do any of the child-rearing themselves (surprise, surprise). When a joey reaches about a year old they become independent of their mother. Though they might stay close to the family or a colony, but it will be a solitary adult.
Quokkas are pretty avid breeders. They mature quickly and can have up to two joeys per year. In a 10-year lifespan, they could produce 15 to 17 little ones.
They can also do something pretty unusual: embryonic diapause. This is the delaying of a fertilized egg's implantation in the mother's uterus until conditions are better for raising a joey. It's a natural reproduction strategy that keeps mom from expending energy to raise babies that perhaps wouldn't survive current conditions.
As an example, if a female quokka mates again shortly after giving birth they may hold off on the second joey until they see if the first joey survives. If the first baby is healthy and progressing well, the embryo will disintegrate. But if the first baby dies, the embryo will naturally implant and develop to take its place.
Probably the most shocking thing about such a sweet-looking animal is a new mom's strategy for escaping predators. If she encounters a particularly fast and dangerous one, chances are she will "drop" her joey to distract the predator long enough to escape.
You can guess what happens to the baby from here, but that's the way of nature, even for the happiest animal on Earth.