Earlier this month, a heartwarming photo of a young koala grasping its mother resurfaced from years prior and went viral among animal lovers. The photo shows a young joey koala seemingly hugging its mother while she lies in a hospital room after an operation. Both mother and joey had been hit by a car just west of Brisbane, Australia. While the joey sustained no injuries, the mother suffered face trauma and a collapsed lung.
After being taken to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, the mother underwent an emergency surgery. It was after this surgery that hospital staff snapped the viral photo showing the young joey clinging to its mother.
At the time, the Australian Broadcast Company (ABC) reported that the six-month-old joey, nicknamed Phantom, clung to its mother, nicknamed Lizzy, during the duration of the surgery.
“Phantom is with Lizzy during her procedures and check-ups to ensure neither mom nor bub gets stressed out,” hospital staff told the ABC.
In a Facebook post, the hospital reported that the koala mother had made a full recovery and both mother and joey were released into the wild. Their status since then remains unknown.
From birth, joeys are extremely dependent on their mothers. Like other marsupials, such as kangaroos or wallabies, koalas continue their post-birth development inside their mothers' pouch. At about six months old, they venture out of the pouch but continue clinging to their mother's back, meaning the joey pictured in Brisbane would have only just emerged from its pouch.
Koalas, which are naturally a solitary animal, cling to their mothers for the next two to four months before the pair separate and the joey begins its own life.
While Lizzy and Phantom may have been dealt a lucky hand by wildlife rescuers, the fate of many of Australia's koalas is markedly more perilous.
That Lizzy and Phantom were on the ground is uncharacteristic of an animal that spends nearly all its life in trees.
Land clearing in Australia for human developments, agriculture, and roads means that the eucalyptus forests upon which koalas have historically depended no longer exist in some regions. Forced to the ground, many koalas are hit by cars, killed by domesticated animals, bushfires, or are forced into overcrowded forests, where they compete for resources.
In addition to their significant loss of habitat, hotter, dryer weather in Australia has recently forced some koalas to begin drinking water. While this may sound like a normal animal behavior, koalas typically consume only eucalyptus leaves, which has historically been their primary source of both moisture and nutrition.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Australian government classify the koala as a vulnerable species overall, a tier before the more serious endangered ranking. Wildlife conservationists in Australia, however, are divided over the classification, with some arguing the koala should be given a critically endangered status by the Australian government given the species' rapidly deteriorating habitat.