We’ve all seen the photos that made the rounds a few years ago: A furry little animal shines into the camera, onto a leaf, onto a tourist. From this adorable gallery – which went viral of course – we can see two facts: 1) that the furry little animal is called a Quokka and 2) that this quokka must be the happiest animal in the world. It’s even right there in the photo gallery.
But life is seldom that simple. It may be known for its sweetness, but the quokka has a salty side. What is a quokka anyway? How do you pronounce your name? And are you really that happy? Read on for a reality check and the sobering truth behind that smile.
. The quokka is a marsupial.
Quokkas are nocturnal marsupials. They are among the smallest members of the macropod family (or “big feet”), which includes kangaroos and wallabies. The Quokka clan lives in swamps and scrubland, tunnels through the brush to provide shelter and hiding places, and emerges at night to find food.
They are the only land mammal on Rottnest Island and have become a tourist attraction. Quokkas were first described by the Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh, who reported finding “a kind of rat the size of a cat”. The prissy sailor called the island the Quokkas Rat nest (“Rattennest”), then sailed away, presumably in the direction of noble wild animals.
Dictionaries offer two options for pronunciation. North Americans usually pronounce it kwo-ka (rhymes with mocha), and everyone else say kwah-ka (rhymes with wokka wokka). It’s really up to you. Quokkas don’t care.
2. The quokka will cut you.
The “happiest animal in the world” isn’t just sunshine and lollipops. You may not want to hear this, but it is true. The large feet of a quokka have very sharp claws. Like much of the Australian wildlife, the quokka will fuck you if you give it the chance.
Journalist Kenneth Cook learned this the hard way while trying to befriend a quokka on a dirt road. Cook noticed the animal’s “little mean mouth” but decided it was probably too small to cause much damage. “It was a vicious looking animal,” he wrote in his 1987 book Wombat revengebut he wasn’t afraid. He offered the little animal a piece of apple, which the quokka spat out, and a crumb of Gorgonzola cheese. The quokka put the gorgonzola in its mouth, chewed, and then, says Cook, “passed out.”
Convinced that he had just poisoned the creature and was determined to save it, Cook put the quokka’s body in his backpack, leaving a little room for air, swung the backpack onto his back, and frantically rode his bike Down the street for help. After a few minutes at breakneck speed, the quokka began to revive and gloomily climbed its claws out of the backpack.
Afraid to turn around if he lost control of his bike, Cook kept racing. The quokka grabbed his neck and began to screech in his ear. The bike kept going. The screeching quokka sank its teeth into Cook’s earlobe and hung there with dead weight like a large, furry earring. The journalist, disoriented, steered his bike off a cliff into the sea. When he emerged, he looked around to find the quokka standing on the bank, staring at him, and growling.
The story seems incredible, but Cook is far from being the only victim of the victorious creature. Aside from teddy bear ears and doe eyes, these animals are ready, willing, and able to fend for themselves. Every year the Rottnest Island infirmary treats dozens of patients – mostly children – for quokka bites.
Quokkas are primarily a peaceful bunch of their own species. Men don’t argue over selected women, food, or water, though they do occasionally scratch over a nice, shady nap spot.
3. The quokka uses people.
Quokkas, who are curious, appealing, and fearless, have adapted admirably to the human presence around them. Campsites and condos are all fair game for hungry quokkas, notorious for scouring local homes in search of nightly snacks. Quokka settlements have sprung up around youth hostels and tourist attractions – in other words, places where the clever animals are guaranteed a light meal. Cognitive scientists like Clive Wynne of Arizona State University turned the tables on the quokkas by opening a store in the same places, knowing that the wild animals will play well.
On Rottnest Island, the curious animals have made themselves a nuisance for business owners. “They wander the streets and in cafes and restaurants,” said Senior Constable Michael Wear Daily telegraph.
However, they’re not just after our meal – we also have good entertainment. When Bangor University conservationist Matt Hayward was chasing a female quokka named Imelda through the brush at night, he found that he was being followed. “I heard footsteps approaching,” he said National wildlife. Every time Hayward turned off his tracking equipment, the footsteps stopped. Just as his horror was peaking, he said, “A small head protruded from behind a bush.” His stalker? Imelda.
4. The quokka is a kind of badass.
Think of the quokka as the polar opposite of the panda. Where the panda seems determined to wipe its own species from the earth, the quokka is a gritty-grain survivor willing to do anything to stay.
For example: Pandas spend between 10 and 16 hours a day searching for food and eating. Why? Because bamboo – which makes up 99 percent of their diet – has almost no nutritional content. Quokkas, on the other hand, divide their time between eating leaves and grass and sleeping in the shade. When water is scarce, quokkas will eat water-storing succulents. When the good leaves are hard to get to, they climb trees. The quokka is not satisfied with useless food.
Both pandas and quokkas tend to father their own offspring, but there is one key difference: intent (or lack thereof in the case of the panda). When a fleeing Quokka mother is pursued by a predator, she throws her baby out of her pouch. Launched this way, Baby Q whirls around on the floor, making strange hissing noises, and attracts the predator’s attention as Mama Quokka escapes to live another day. It can and will reproduce again. It’s an ice cold strategy, but it works.
Panda cubs, those rare and precious million dollar babies, were killed when their own mothers accidentally sat on them.
5. No, you cannot keep a quokka as a pet.
We are sorry. Wild quokka populations are declining as invasive predators such as foxes and cats move to the quokka area. You have to stay in the wild. You can’t have one.
And don’t try to smuggle them in or cuddle them either: Rottnest Island authorities will fine anyone who touches a quokka $ 300. Whether the fine is supposed to protect the quokkas or their possible human scratching posts is unclear.
6. Yes, Quokkas smile – but we don’t know if they are happy.
It’s wild, fearless, and dead adorpts, but is it happy?
Nobody knows. Clive Wynne’s cognitive experiments refuted the long-held assumption that quokkas were “really, really stupid” – an assumption that he himself found in the scientific literature. The little smileys “have no magical cognitive abilities,” he says, “but they’re not stupid. They have the skills they need to be successful in their natural environment.
So why are you smiling? Consider Bitchy Resting Face, a disease that affects several Hollywood A-listers. Look at the great white shark, whose face is constantly stretched in a goofy grin. The Quokka’s smile, Mona Lisa, says Clive Wynne, is “an accident of evolution”.
He’s the expert, so let’s take him at his word. But if we were stubborn, tiny furballs with cute faces and vicious claws, we’d smile too.
This story has been updated.