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6 Things to Know About the Super Cute Quokka

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We’ve all seen the photos that made the rounds last year: a furry little critter beams at the camera, at a leaf, at a tourist. From this adorable gallery—which naturally went viral—we can discern two facts: 1) that the furry little critter is called a “quokka”; and 2) that this quokka, whatever that is, must be the world’s happiest animal. It even says so, right there in the photo gallery.

But life is rarely so simple. It may be known for its sweetness, but the quokka has a salty side. What is a quokka, anyway? How do you pronounce its name? And are they really that happy-go-lucky? Read on for a reality check, and the sobering truth behind that smile.

1. Meet the Quokkas

Quokkas are nocturnal marsupials. They’re some of the smallest members of the macropod (or “big foot”) family, which also includes kangaroos and wallabies. The quokka clan makes its home in swamps and scrublands, tunneling through the brush to create shelters and hideouts and emerging at night to find food.

They’re the only land mammal on Rottnest Island, and have become something of a tourist attraction. Quokkas were first described by Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh, who reported finding “a kind of rat as big as a cat.” The squeamish seaman named the quokkas’ island Ratte nest (“rat’s nest”), then sailed away, presumably toward more genteel wildlife.

As for pronunciation, dictionaries offer two options. North Americans usually pronounce it kwo-ka (rhymes with “mocha”), and everyone else says kwah-ka (rhymes with “wokka wokka”). It’s really up to you. Quokkas don’t care.

2. The Quokka Will Cut You

The “world’s happiest animal” is not all sunshine and lollipops. You may not want to hear this, but it’s true. A quokka’s big feet are tipped with very sharp claws. Like much of Australia’s wildlife, the quokka will f*** you up if you give it the opportunity.

Journalist Kenneth Cook learned the hard way when he tried to befriend a quokka along a dirt road. Cook noted the animal’s “small, mean mouth,” but decided it was probably too small to do much damage. “It was a malicious-looking beast,” he wrote in his 1987 book Wombat Revenge, but 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 popped the gorgonzola into its mouth, chewed, and then, Cook says, “fell down in a dead faint.” 

Convinced he’d just poisoned the creature and determined to save it, Cook zipped the quokka’s body into his backpack, left a little room for air, swung the pack onto his back, and pedaled his bicycle frantically down the road to find help. After a few minutes of bumping along at breakneck speed, the quokka began to revive, and blearily climbed out of the backpack, claws first. 

Afraid to turn around in case he lost control of his bike, Cook sped onward. The quokka grabbed his neck and began shrieking in his ear. The bike kept going. The shrieking quokka sank its teeth into Cook’s earlobe and hung there, dead weight, like a large, furry earring. Disoriented, the journalist steered his bike off a cliff into the ocean. Surfacing, he looked around and found the quokka standing on the shore, glaring at him and snarling.  

The story seems incredible, but Cook is far from the winsome creature’s only victim. Teddy-bear ears and doe eyes aside, these animals are ready, willing, and able to fend for themselves. Each year, the Rottnest Island infirmary treats dozens of patients—mostly children—for quokka bites

Among themselves, quokkas are primarily a peaceful bunch. Males don’t fight over choice females, food, or water, although they will occasionally scrap over a nice, shady napping spot. 

3. The Quokka Is Using You

Inquisitive, appealing, and fearless, quokkas have adapted to human presence in their environment in admirable fashion. Campsites and condos are all fair game for hungry quokkas, who have become notorious for raiding local homes in search of late-night snacks. Quokka settlements have sprung up around youth hostels and tourist sites—places, in other words, where the canny animals are assured of an easy meal. Cognitive science researchers like Arizona State University’s Clive Wynne have turned the tables on the quokkas by setting up shop in these same sites, knowing the wild animals will play nice. 

On Rottnest Island, the inquisitive critters have made themselves something of a nuisance for business owners. “They wander down the streets and into cafes and restaurants,” Senior Constable Michael Wear told the Daily Telegraph.

They’re not just after our food, though—we also make good entertainment. While tracking a female quokka named Imelda through the brush at night, Bangor University conservationist Matt Hayward realized he was being followed. “I heard footsteps approaching,” he told National Wildlife. Each time Hayward turned off his tracking equipment, the footsteps ceased. Just as his terror reached its peak, he said, “a little head poked out from behind a bush.” His stalker? Imelda.

4. The Quokka Is Kind of a Badass

Think of the quokka as the panda’s polar opposite. Where the panda seems determined to erase its own species from the face of the Earth, the quokka is a gritty survivor, ready to do anything it takes to stick around. 

For example: pandas spend between ten and sixteen hours each day foraging 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 grasses and snoozing in the shade. When water is scarce, quokkas chow down on water-storing succulents. When the good leaves are hard to reach, they climb trees. The quokka does not settle for useless food.

Both pandas and quokkas are prone to offing their own offspring, but there’s a crucial difference: intention (or lack thereof, in the panda’s case). When pursued by a predator, a fleeing quokka mum will eject her baby from her pouch. Thusly launched, Baby Q flails about on the ground, making weird hissing noises and attracting the predator’s attention while Mama Quokka escapes to live another day. She can, and will, reproduce again. It’s a stone-cold strategy, but it works. 

Panda cubs, those rare and precious million-dollar babies, have been killed when their own mothers accidentally sat on them.

5. No, You Can’t Have One.

Sorry. Wild quokka populations are declining as invasive predators like foxes and cats move into quokka territory. They need to stay in the wild. You can’t have one.

And don’t try to smuggle them, or snuggle them, either: Rottnest Island authorities will slap a $300 fine on anyone caught touching a quokka. Whether the fine is intended to protect the quokkas or their would-be human scratching posts is unclear.

6. So Why Is the Quokka Smiling?

It’s fierce, fearless, and totes adorbs, but is it happy?

Nobody knows. Clive Wynne’s cognitive experiments disproved the long-held assumption that quokkas were “really, really dumb”—an assumption, he said, he found even in scientific literature. The smiley little guys don’t “have any magical cognitive abilities,” he says, “but they’re not stupid. They have the skills they need—honed by evolution over millions of years—to thrive in their natural environment.”

So why are they smiling? Consider Bitchy Resting Face, a condition suffered by several Hollywood A-listers. Consider the great white shark, with its face permanently stretched into a dopey grin. The quokka’s Mona Lisa smile, says Clive Wynne, is “an accident of evolution.” 

He’s the expert, so we’ll take him at his word. But if we were tenacious, tiny furballs with anime-cute faces and vicious claws, we’d be smiling too. 

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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15 Examples of the Most Epic Metamorphoses from Youth to Adult
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We’re all familiar with the most dramatic metamorphosizers of the animal kingdom: butterflies. They go from a tiny egg to an awkward wiggling caterpillar to mysterious pupa to a delicate, colorful winged creature. However, there are many other animals besides butterflies that undergo dramatic transformations from youth to adult. Here are 15 of the most epic metamorphoses seen in nature.

1. LADYBUGS (COCCINELLIDAE)

What’s black, white, and red all over? Mandy ladybugs are—but only in their final stage of life. Turns out these little beetles undergo one of the most epic metamorphoses in the animal kingdom: For most species, after adult female ladybugs mate, they lay a clutch of tiny yellow eggs right in the middle an aphid colony, usually on the underside of a leaf. Eggs hatch in a week, revealing spiky black worm-like larvae that readily gobble up the aphids around them. When a larva is fully grown, it changes into a blob-like yellow pupa. Finally, the black, white and red (or sometimes yellow or orange) insect appears.

2. MAYFLY (EPHEMEROPTERA)

Mayflies, the less-elegant cousins of dragonflies and damselflies, have one of the most unique metamorphoses of all insects. Most insects’ life stages move from egg to nymph to pupa to adult, but mayflies do not have a pupa stage. Instead, it is the only type of insect to undergo a subimago stage, meaning it’s almost an adult in the sense it grows wings … but cannot fly long distances and isn’t yet sexually mature. The mayfly’s final life stage, the fully flighted and sexually mature imago or adult, is extremely short, lasting just a few hours to a few days.

3. PEACOCK SPIDER (MARATUS)

Left: Jurgen Otto, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Right: Jurgen Otto, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Peacock spiders are tiny, venomous, and beautiful (especially the colorfully rumped males) arthopods native to Australia. Male peacock spiders are so beautiful, in fact, it’s hard to believe that, like all spiders, they go through some not-so-glamorous life stages: egg, egg sac, spiderling, adult. When male peacock spiders reach sexual maturity they try to seduce less-colorful female peacock spiders by performing a showy dance.

4. NUDIBRANCH (NUDIBRANCHIA)

While adult nudibranchs are essentially colorful and ornate blobs of the sea, they don’t start out that way. In fact, after hatching, nudibranch larvae are tiny, plain-looking and have small snail-like shells. Over the course of two months they morph from this plain stage into adults, along the way getting larger and more colorful, losing their shells, and growing gills and feelers, called rhinophores.

5. CROWN OF THORNS STARFISH (ACANTHASTER PLANCI)

Another sea creature that looks completely different as an adult than a juvenile is the crown of thorns starfish. When looking at an adult, it’s easy to see where this creature gets its name: It’s completely covered with dangerous-looking sharp spikes. But after hatching, it looks like not much more than a translucent, floating blob. Over time it grows arms, and later, spikes, then fixes itself to rocks where it feeds on coral.

6. IMMORTAL JELLYFISH (TURRITOPSIS DOHRNII)

The secret to a long and prosperous life, it turns out, is to be a jellyfish. The aptly named immortal jellyfish begins life as an egg, like all other jellies. It then enters the free-swimming larva stage, then settles down into a polyp on the ocean floor, and then finally morphs into a sexually mature jellyfish. Unlike most other jellies, an immortal jellyfish is capable of reverting back into the polyp stage at any time it faces environmental stress, attacks by predators, sickness or old age—essentially being reborn as a young jelly.

7. FLATFISH (PLEURONECTIFORMES)

Think of Pablo Picasso’s most asymmetrically painted human face, stick it onto a fish, and there you have a flatfish. These fish, which include flounder and sole among other species, begin life inside tiny eggs that float up to the surface of the sea. For a few weeks, a larval flatfish swims upright and looks just like a typical baby fish. But after a few weeks its skull bones shift and one eye migrates to the opposite side of its face, forcing the now-lopsided fish to swim sideways. Eventually, when its facial features all move to one side of its face, it changes color and moves to live on the bottom of the sea, its blind side facing down.

8. EASTERN HELLBENDER (CRYPTOBRANCHUS ALLEGANIENSIS)

Left: Pete and Noe Woods, Flickr // CC BY 2.0; Right: Projosh More, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Also called the snot otter and devil dog, the eastern hellbender is a giant type of salamander not exactly known for being beautiful in its adult form. Slippery, wrinkly and the color of mud, they’re right at home at the bottom of rivers, where they can live up to 50 years. Like all salamanders, hellbenders begin as eggs. From their eggs they hatch, coming into the world small and adorable. As time passes, they grow larger and less cute.

9. CHALAZODES BUBBLE NEST FROG (RAORCHESTES CHALAZODES)

Don’t let this lime-green frog’s bright and cheery looks fool you: It lives in only one tiny area in India and is critically endangered, threatened most by an ever-shrinking habitat. These creatures were once believed to lay eggs that developed into tadpoles on pond surfaces like many other frogs. But in 2014, it was discovered that they had a different reproductive strategy: The frogs crawl into a living bamboo shoot that has a hole in it (probably created by insects or rodents) and lay their eggs there. The creatures skip the tadpole stage entirely, hatching as froglets. Because they don't have a tadpole stage, the species doesn't require water to lay its eggs.

10. MIMIC POISON DART FROG (RANITOMEYA IMITATOR)

Mattias Starkenberg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Covered in bright hues spotted, striped, banded, and blotched with contrasting black, the poison dart frog is one of the most striking-looking of all amphibians. Yet they don’t start out that way. After hatching, young mimic poison dart frogs are looked after by their mother, who lays a clutch of unfertilized feeder eggs to provide them with some nourishment (and, at least for some species of poison frog, toxicity). Tadpoles are brown and black, growing more colorful with age until they reach their fantastic adult form.

11. KEA (NESTOR NOTABILIS)

The kea is a large, vulnerable species of parrot native to New Zealand, with green and blue feathers on its back and brown and orange feathers on its underside. While adult keas appear majestic and beautiful, they don’t start out that way. Baby keas retain an alien-like, sparse white hairdo for several months after hatching. Keas are considered a very intelligent species, observed working together and using tools.

12. LAYSAN ALBATROSS (PHOEBASTRIA IMMUTABILIS)

Laysan albatrosses are another species of bird where the babies are very little like their parents. But unlike baby keas, baby Laysan albatrosses hatch as adorable fuzzy gray blobs. As they grow older, the babies slowly grow adult feathers and lose their baby feathers. This leaves them with unique hairdos that sometimes make them look like human celebrities. Ringo Starr, anyone?

13. FLAMINGO (PHOENICOPTERUS)

Left: Getty Images // Right: iStock

Unlike keas and albatrosses, baby flamingoes look a lot like their parents, except they’re missing something: color. Flamingo chicks hatch with gray and/or white feathers, over time taking on the same pink hue as their parents, which becomes more intense over time. Why? Well, you are what you eat, and flamingoes eat shrimp and algae rich in carotenoids, the same pigments that cause shrimp to turn pink when cooked.

14. VIRGINIA OPOSSUM (DIDELPHIS VIRGINIANA)

Virginia opossums are scavengers, eating carrion and rotting vegetation, and that helps keep the environment clean. Virginia opossums are native to North America, where they’re the continent’s only living marsupials. This opossums have pouches for carrying their babies, just like kangaroos. Also like kangaroos they give birth to large numbers of navy-bean size babies, which grow inside their pouches. When they’re born, they look more like pink jellybeans than animals. Over the course of three to five months, they mature, growing fur, sharp teeth and long tails.

15. GIANT PANDA (AILUROPODA MELANOLEUCA)

Getty Images

Giant pandas are called giant pandas for a reason: They’re enormous in size, weighing up to 250 pounds. But these bamboo-munching bears don’t start out that way. When born, giant panda cubs weigh just 90 to 130 grams (about as much as a small apple). Besides being way smaller in size, baby pandas are also quite sparsely furred—and so they look very different than what they will as fuzzy black-and-white adults.

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