Pap not poop: The ‘gift’ a mother koala gives her joey
The relatively undocumented practice involves a mother koala producing ‘pap’, which resembles poo, for her joey to eat. It’s a developmental milestone that occurs when the joey reaches a weight of 300g at 5–6 months of age.
Australian Reptile Park Life Sciences Manager and ‘koala whisperer’, Hayley Shute, says the pap contains special live bacteria that a joey’s gut needs for the transition from pouch milk to eucalyptus leaves.
In the wild, a joey stimulates the mother’s cloaca by rubbing its head back and forth in little, jerky movements, which brings on papping. To invoke papping in captivity, Hayley takes on the role of joey.
“Pap resembles poo but is softer and oilier,” Hayley says. “I liken it to honey, not because of the consistency so much but because of all the good live bacteria it contains.”
Because the process occurs in the pouch, it has gone relatively unobserved in the wild. But Hayley’s work hand-feeding joeys, which may have an inexperienced first-time mother or simply a disinterested one, means she has had to collect pap to feed these young.
In the wild, a joey stimulates the mother’s cloaca by rubbing its head back and forth in little, jerky movements, which brings on papping. To invoke papping in captivity, Hayley takes on the role of the joey.
It can take up to 1.5 hours to get the really good stuff. As best we can tell a physiological change within the mum triggers pap production.”
The mother koala also undergoes a physical transformation during the process. “She goes into a trance-like state, eyes half closed, staring ahead but looking at nothing, literally like she’s hypnotised,” Hayley says.
Research into the makeup of pap shows it is markedly different to faeces, which contains dead bacteria. “It’s the live bacteria in the pap that’s so beneficial for the joeys,” says Hayley. “We’re not exactly sure how it works yet, but it acts on the joey’s gut to help it digest eucalyptus leaves. Once a joey starts eating pap it can be just a matter of hours before it starts looking for leaves.
“It’s my favourite part of raising koalas actually,” Hayley says. “They reach for the leaves but miss them and end up grabbing their own faces. It’s adorable.”
Pap fast facts
• Pap is produced by stimulating a female’s cloaca
• A joey needs pap to help digest eucalyptus leaves
• Papping occurs around the six-month mark in koala joeys
• Koalas are around the size of an avocado when papping commences
• Koala poo is hard and oblong shaped; pap is softer and oiler.
Watch a joey feed on pap: