6 Things to Know About the Super Cute Quokka

iStock
iStock

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.

How to Keep a Cat Out of Your Christmas Tree

MW47/iStock via Getty Images
MW47/iStock via Getty Images

You may be able to resist poking around the Christmas tree until December 25, but your cat has different plans. The tree you spent hours decorating is nothing more than an oversized toy to the feline in your home. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to dissuade your pet from swatting away all your hard work.

As Lifehacker reports, an elaborate skirt is the key to a cat-friendly tree. If a cat loves the soft, fluffy material beneath the tree, it may lose interest in the branches overhead. A different approach is to use the skirt as an opportunity to create an uninviting barrier between your cat and the tree. It's hard to mess with ornaments when they're hanging above a layer of tape laid out sticky-side up, or even a bed of pinecones if you want something that looks more natural.

Some curious cats can't be deterred by a few obstacles in their way. For these cases, PetCareRx recommends using a safe cat repellent. There are many smells cats can't stand, like bitter apple, citronella, potpourri, and even Vicks VapoRub. You can either spray pine cones or cotton balls with these scents and tuck them around the tree, or spray them directly onto the branches. Your cat will suddenly be repulsed by the shiny new object in the living room, plus your tree will smell a little more festive—especially if it's fake.

Even after taking these precautions, it helps to have a few more safeguards in place. Limiting ornaments to the top half of the tree where they'll be out of kitty's reach, and securing them with strings instead of wire hooks, means they're less likely to end up on the ground or in your pet's paws. Location is also crucial—setting up your tree right next to a sofa or another piece of furniture your cat likes to climb on is like inviting him to use it as a launchpad.

If you're thinking of skipping the traditional tree altogether this year, here are some regional alternatives.

[h/t Lifehacker]

Treat Your Achy Back to a Cozy, Vibrating Sloth Pillow This Winter

Smoko
Smoko

Battling your way through the biting winds of winter just to get to your office or run a simple errand—even if you’re just dashing a few yards to and from your car—can make your body feel like it’s been through an actual battle. And while cold weather definitely justifies curling up on the couch under a weighted blanket for hours on end, sometimes a regular throw pillow just isn’t enough to soothe your stiff muscles.

Smoko’s plush boo pillow from Urban Outfitters ($49), however, just might do the trick. Not only does it have a fleece exterior, it also vibrates: Just press the power button on the right arm, and the pillow will give you a subtle, relaxing massage to sink into while you binge-watch whatever television series your friends won’t stop talking about. According to PopSugar, it comes with three AA batteries, so you don’t have to worry about bundling back up for a last-minute trip to the convenience store after you realize the only batteries you have are in your TV remote.

The smiling sloth face on the front gives you the impression that you’re being hugged by the world’s cutest, coziest arboreal mammal. There’s also a handle on the top of the pillow, so you can easily relocate from the couch to your bed whenever you feel like it.

In short, the sloth-themed pillow might make you actually look forward to hearing your local meteorologist drop the term “wintry mix” in the forecast. And, at $49, it’s an ideal gift for anyone on your list who loves sloths and/or enjoys indulging in sloth-like behavior.

You can get one (or more) from Urban Outfitters here—and, for the full effect, why not pair it with a nice ugly Christmas sweater? Here are our 11 favorites.

[h/t PopSugar]

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