Is This The Most Adorable Aussie Animal?

Thanks to quokka selfies, the marsupial is becoming famous around the world.

Until recently, many people outside of Australia had never heard of the quokka, a Muppet-cute (despite its beady eyes and rat's tail) marsupial with an irresistible smile.

But now, people's selfies with the furry critter - like the above pic from Allan Dixon - have charmed the Internet. So what's the story behind the quokka, whose chronic grin earned it the moniker "happiest animal in the world" a couple of years back?

First off, the animal, preferring thick vegetation, inhabits island swamps and thickets off the coast of Western Australia – mainly on Rottnest Island and Bald Island – as well as eucalyptus forests and riverbanks on the mainland.

These social plant-eaters hang out in clans, munch on swamp peppermint and other greens, store fat in their tails for lean times, dig tunnels through vegetation for napping and hiding, and hop like kangaroos - a close relative.

Rottnest Island is the only place quokkas still come together in large numbers: There are as many as 12,000 of them there, of fewer than 14,000 total in the wild—down from probably many tens of thousands in their heyday. Due to habitat destruction and human persecution, quokkas are considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Rottnest, meaning "rats' nest," got its name from a Dutch sea captain who observed the animals there in the early 1700s and dubbed them "a kind of rat as big as a common cat."

More than 500,000 people visit the 18.9-square-kilometre Rottnest every year.

Not surprisingly, quokkas have adapted nicely to the human invasion:  They're bold enough to bound through streets and as skilled as raccoons in pilfering trash for goodies. They also don't seem to mind posing for Facebook-worthy pictures.

Marsupial expert Yegor Malaschichev, a zoologist at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, sees no harm in snapping photos with quokkas—but he warns not to touch them, which is illegal.

Even more important, Malaschichev said, is not to feed the quokkas, especially "what we think they may like to eat."

An example: The animals will happily (and adorably) nibble away at a visitor's vegemite sandwich, but the bread "sticks between their teeth, which can later cause an infection called lumpy jaw," says Malaschichev.

It would be terrible, he says, "to cause premature death in one of these nice, and also vulnerable, animals."

Feeding quokkas is a bad idea, echoes conservation biologist Sue Miller of the University of Western Australia, who has worked with the "soft like a cat" animals for several years.

"People tend to feed them fries, bread, or fruit, and the animals become trusting of humans, which can cause problems. Animals that live farther away from [tourist activity] would probably hop away when approached."

And, she says, there is always the risk of being bitten. These are wild animals, after all.

[Header image: Instagram/daxon]


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