Some people believe that koalas are able to get drunk on ‘a certain chemical’ found in the oil of eucalyptus leaves, and that’s why they need a good long sleep – to sleep off the hangover. Is this fact or fiction? Do koalas get high? Let’s take a look:
This rumour started as a theory to explain why these marsupials slept for so long – sometimes up to 22 hours each day. The reason they need so much sleep is mainly because of their diet. Koalas eat mainly gum leaves, very few other animals would be able to survive on this diet, because the leaves are so fibrous and contain very little nutritious content – they take a lot of energy to digest properly.
This doesn’t mean animals can’t get tipsy from eating certain foods. It does happen, but it’s more commonly seen in animals eating fruit containing lots of sugar that has been left sitting for a while. The sugar breaks down and ferments, forming alcohol as a by-product. Eucalyptus contains mostly water, fibre, and very little sugar – and no alcohol.
The oil found in eucalyptus leaves is known to be poisonous, causing a number of ailments from nausea and vomiting, to irritation and skin redness. They can be harmful in large quantities, but koalas are specially adapted to living this way.
As the marsupials don’t get much goodness from their diet, they spend a lot of time conserving their energy and sleeping for long periods of time so they have the energy required to digest their tough meal. Koalas will eat around 500 grams (18 ounces) of eucalyptus leaves every day, but it’s certainly an urban myth that they get drunk from them.
So if their diet is no good – why don’t they eat something else? Koalas are incredibly fussy and are extremely picky eaters. Just as people have their favourite foods, koalas do too. Koalas living in different parts of Australia will eat the leaves of different species of eucalyptus trees. And as so many other animals aren’t able to eat the eucalyptus leaves, koalas have carved out a nice little niche for themselves. They have managed to avoid food competition from other species by sticking to their highly specialise, albeit slightly unusual, diet.
To sum up – this is unfortunately a myth. As much as I’d like to think of a drunk koala being silly with its koala friends and craving a takeaway after a long eucalyptus-eating session, it just doesn’t happen.