Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Bizarre behavior shows—for the first time—how wild koalas drink

Koalas begging firefighters for water have become emblematic of Australia’s recent wildfire woes. But aside from these unusual interactions, scientists have never been quite sure how koalas drink. Now, a new study has documented the first evidence of the clever way they stay hydrated: by licking water from the smooth bark of gum trees as it rains.

Past research has suggested that because koalas spend the vast majority of their time in trees, they likely get most of their water from the eucalyptus leaves they eat. But over the course of 13 years—from 2006 to 2019—citizen scientists, ecologists, and land owners reported 46 sightings of tree-licking behavior (above) in wild koalas. Researchers reviewed video and photographic evidence, and they found that even when puddles or lakes were nearby, koalas were more likely to drink the water running down trees, they report this month in Ethology.

Koalas face a number of threats, and dwindling access to water is high on the list. Australia is now experiencing its driest period on record, with higher average temperatures and fewer days of rain. If tree licking provides a significant proportion of koalas’ water needs, researchers hope their results can identify areas where water should be supplemented as the rain dries up.