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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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Roadside Bear Statue in Wales is So Lifelike That Safety Officials Want It Removed
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Wooden bear statue.

There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

Man high-fiving his dog.
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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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