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May 05, 2022 - BY Ruchika Dwivedi

Koala - The Marsupial Sharing Similarities with Human Fingerprints

Have you heard about Koala?

The koala bear (Phascolarctos cinereus) is an Australian arboreal herbivorous mammal. It is the only living member of the Phascolarctidae family, and its nearest living relatives are wombats, who belong to the Vombatidae family. The Koala lives along Australia's eastern and southern coasts mainland, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. Its robust, tailless body and a massive head with round, fluffy ears and a large, spoon-shaped nose make it instantly identifiable. The Koala measures 60–85 cm (24–33 in) in length and weighs 4–15 kg (9–33 lb). The color of the fur varies from silver-grey to dark chocolate brown. 

Apart from being the adorable looking marsupial, one more interesting fact about koala bears is that they have fingerprints that are pretty indistinguishable from human fingerprints. Even the best detectives would be stumped if a crime was committed in a koala zoo. Why? Because koalas, the little marsupials that climb trees with their young on their backs, have nearly similar fingerprints to human ones. The looping and whirling ridges on koalas' fingertips are challenging to discern from our own, even under a microscope.

This exciting story began in 1975 when British Polish conducted an unusual investigation upon the fingerprints from six chimpanzees and two orangutans housed at London and Twycross Zoos to find some clues on the unsolved crime happening polish believed to be done by these banana-eating miscreants. While these primates ended up being as innocent as they seemed, the police did determine that their fingerprints were indistinguishable from a human's without careful inspection.

A different kind of mammal came under suspicion a few years later, in 1996: a koala!

While it makes sense for chimps and gorillas to share these traits with humans because they are the closest relatives of humans, koalas are marsupials with whom we have very little in common. According to studies, mammalian and marsupial ancestors split about 125 million years ago. So, where did the fingerprints of these adorable rage monsters come from? According to the research, koala prints originated independently and much more recently than primate prints, as their closest relatives (kangaroos, wombats, and other animals) lack them. It could all come down to the convergent evolution hypothesis, which states that distantly related species evolve similar features to meet similar needs. 

We know that the formation of fingerprints in humans has two significant purposes. The first is the grip, and the second is the sensitivity. This could make sense for koalas who are picky eaters for eucalyptus leaves. There are almost 700 species of eucalyptus, but the koalas eat only 200 specific species and also only when the leaves reach a particular level of ripeness. Now the fingerprints in their hand help them climb to the tall eucalyptus tree. The sharp grooves in the fingerprint allow them to feel if the leaves are of the proper texture before eating them, similar to how we use our fingerprints to handle tactile details. 

Maciej Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia, has stated that these iconic creatures' prints could also easily be mistaken for our own: "It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail. although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility."

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