Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Bob from Los Angeles, CA. Bob Wonders, “What is a quokka?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Bob!
Related to the kangaroo and wallaby, quokkas are small marsupials about the size of a teddy bear or cat. Native only to Southwestern Australia, they're considered a vulnerable species, because habitat loss and predators, such as feral pigs, European red foxes, and feral cats, have decimated quokka populations on the mainland.
Fortunately, they have managed to survive and thrive on Rottnest Island, just off the coast of Perth. In fact, the island takes its name, which means "rats' nest," from the quokka. Apparently Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh thought quokkas looked like large rats because of their long tails.
Experts estimate as many as 10,000 quokkas now inhabit Rottnest Island, which has been cleared of natural predators. They've even become a popular tourist attraction, thanks to their gentle nature and their unique mouths that make them look like they're always smiling.
Sometimes called the "world's happiest animal," quokkas will gladly pose for photographs with tourists. In fact, a tourist in 2012 took a selfie with a quokka that appeared to be smiling. The photo went on social media, and tourists flocked to Rottnest Island where the "quokka selfie" quickly became all the rage.
The increase in tourism was both helpful and potentially harmful. Increased knowledge of the quokka has helped animal conservationists to raise additional funds to help secure the animal's continued survival.
However, close interaction with humans has also had a downside. The normally nocturnal animals have learned to forage for food during the day when tourists are around. Unfortunately, the foods humans leave behind tend to be bad for quokkas, which normally survive on grasses and shrubs.
Officials have passed new laws making it illegal to touch and feed quokkas. Nevertheless, tourists in search of the perfect "quokka selfie" often overstep their bounds.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the future of the quokka isn't the selfie, though. It's climate change. Experts fear that increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall will result in the withering of the wetlands and vegetation quokkas need to survive.