Jackaroo (pictured) is a male koala that lives on St. Bees Island, Australia; this is where I traveled to for three weeks during the breeding season (see bloga Koala Field Project: Tracking Koalas and Koala Field Project: A Koala Chorus). I’ve been writing blog posts about smelly koalas (Male Koalas Smell Like Goats?!) and loud koalas (Motorcycles and Koalas), and now I can tell you about the koalas that I saw in the wild. I was hoping to see koalas and maybe hear a few bellows, but was I in for a surprise!
As we hiked around St. Bee’s radio tracking koalas, we started to focus on individuals. One of the koalas we started to track daily was a male named Jackaroo. He is an older male and has a radio collar on him. He also lives on the knoll, our focal point for koala tracking on the island. One of the goals of this trip was to see if I could record wild koala bellows and do playback experiments (explained later). At the San Diego Zoo, I record the koalas in the evenings, so we decided to head out one evening about 5 and see what I could record. That night, we tracked Jackaroo and found him in a tree with a female koala in a neighboring tree. Fred and Bill left me there with my recording equipment and went on to track another female (Xena and her daughter, Jen) that was nearby. Then it all started: Jackaroo let out a long bellow from up in his tree. Before I knew it, he was climbing down the tree and running over to some smaller trees that he proceeded to scent mark (four trees in all)!! I could not believe my eyes. I rarely see this at the San Diego Zoo, much less expected to see it in the wild!
After only a couple of minutes he was off and running again across the ground. By now I had radioed Bill and Fred to come back over to my location so that we could track Jackaroo and see what he was up to. When we caught up with him again (we didn’t want to go running after him because we were trying not to disturb him), he was up in another tree and wouldn’t you know it: he started to bellow again! Thankfully, I had my recorder handy and was able to record his bellows. Now, as if this wonderful night was not exciting enough for me, Jackaroo kept amazing us.
Just a few nights later we decided to attempt a playback experiment with Jackaroo and an unknown female. We would play a koala bellow through a speaker placed near Jackaroo and a female and then observe and record their reactions (if any) to the call. I had brought a CD of male and female bellows recorded at the San Diego Zoo to do just this. These would be novel calls to the koalas on the island. We set up, with Fred watching the female, Bill watching Jackaroo, and the playback speaker and me hidden from view about 16 feet (5 meters) away. First I played our control sound (something they would never normally hear: a gibbon call); the animals reacted just slightly to the sound, but it didn’t change their behavior long term. Ten minutes later, I played a bellow from Gonta, one of the males living at the San Diego Zoo, and WOW!! Jackaroo didn’t know what to do! He started climbing around the tree he was on and then just couldn’t contain himself—he let loose a loud bellow directed right at me. It was so intense that I was a little afraid he was going to come running through the brush to show me who was boss! Here’s his bellow:
Jennifer Tobey is a research fellow in the San Diego Zoo’s Behavioral Biology Division.
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