We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More
Planet Earth

Meet the Adorable Quokka, Known as the 'Happiest Animal on Earth'

The quokka, an impossibly-cute marsupial that's taken social media by storm, is facing unexpected threats in its southwestern Australia home.

By Lily CareyApr 25, 2024 10:00 AM
Quokka - Setonix brachyurus small macropod size of domestic cat
(Credit: Martin Pelanek/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The quokka, an adorable marsupial hailing from southwestern Australia, is bound to put a smile on anyone’s face. They’re small and fuzzy, and the distinctive shape of their mouth gives quokkas the appearance of an ever-present grin. 

And despite their limited range, these herbivorous marsupials have captured the hearts of millions around the world — the viral #quokkaselfie trend on social media features thousands of selfies taken with quokkas.  

Yet as the quokka population rapidly declines, the lives of these viral sensations remain shrouded in mystery for many of their fans. Here’s what you need to know about the critters known as the “happiest animal on Earth” — and how scientists are working to keep them smiling.  

Where Quokkas Live

(Credit: Damian Lugowski/Getty Images)

Rottnest Island, a popular tourist spot off the coast of Perth in western Australia, is home to the majority of the quokka population today, with an estimated 10,000 individuals. The island was even named for the quokka, in a way — when Dutch colonizers first landed on the island in the 17th century, they thought the quokka resembled a rat, and dubbed the island “Rotte nest,” which means "rat’s nest" in Dutch. 

Read More: That Urge to Squeeze Cute Things Has a Name, It's Called Cute Aggression

Are Quokkas Friendly?

Now, Rottnest Island’s bustling tourism industry means it’s also one of the main places where humans interact with quokkas, earning them their friendly reputation and their Internet fame. Though quokkas have been seen sidling up to humans, Larisa DeSantis, a vertebrate paleontologist at Vanderbilt University who studies quokkas, says this particular trend might be best left alone.  

“You don't really want to get that close to them,” she says. “One of the things people don't realize is quokkas have been known to bite people […] But you can get a nice photo with a quokka without encroaching on their space too much.” 

Still, not all of their social media fame has been positive. A popular meme that has circulated since 2018 claims that adult quokkas throw their young at predators in order to escape.

While the meme is somewhat exaggerated, since the quokka aren't literally throwing their young at predators, studies largely back this claim up: Like many marsupials, female quokkas carry their young in their pouch. In the face of predators, the quokka will sometimes relax its pouch and drop its babies on the ground, leaving them as a distraction for potential threats. 

(Credit: EAGiven/Getty Images)

“It's one of those potential survival strategies that lets the mother live another day to be able to reproduce,” DeSantis says.  

Read More: The World's Smallest Marsupial Is A Bloodthirsty Carnivore

Are Quokkas Endangered?

Once widespread across western Australia, the quokka is found today on only a handful of islands and concentrated in clusters in the continent’s dense southwest forests. Experts estimate that less than 15,000 quokkas remain in the wild today, making them a vulnerable species.  

“They're getting hit by all sides,” says DeSantis. “There's habitat fragmentation that's been happening for a long time. There's invasive species, and then now you're having climate change and the more extreme fire events.” 

On Australia’s mainland, you’re unlikely to see a quokka’s smiling face — the quokka’s island populations are faring far better than its mainland counterparts. In recent years, most mainland colonies are only found in dense forests, where thick vegetation provides abundant food and shelter.  

(Credit: Damian Lugowski/Getty Images)

This hasn’t always been the case, DeSantis says. “Quokkas appeared to stay fairly abundant on the landscape up until about the 1920s, 1930s,” she continues. “This is not an indication of just people, it's actually more specifically Europeans and invasive species making it into these areas.”  

Australia has been inhabited by humans for more than 65,000 years. But when European colonizers arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, they brought with them animals like foxes, goats and rabbits. Invasive species — plants or animals that enter an ecosystem they’re not native to — can often throw off the delicate balance of that ecosystem, competing for resources and potentially driving out native organisms.   

Read More: 10 Invasive Species You Can (and Should) Eat

The Dwindling Quokka Population

According to DeSantis, invasive species that arrived in Australia from Europe impacted quokkas in two main ways, leading to a sharp decline in their population. 

“Foxes are predating on them directly, and that's probably the major one,” she says. “The other [impact] is that sometimes other invasive species are coming into regions and outcompeting them for food.”  

Today, quokkas thrive on islands because it’s the one place that foxes can’t go. Though they face some natural predators, such as ospreys and venomous snakes, quokka populations have largely been able to rebound offshore.  

That’s also why modern mainland quokka colonies live mostly in dense forests, as the cover from vegetation helps them hide from foxes and other unnatural predators.  

Read More: 5 Vulnerable Animal Species That May Surprise You

Quokka Conservation Efforts

Especially on the mainland, quokkas are facing threats beyond just invasive predators — increasingly-frequent wildfires, coupled with intensifying aridification and urbanization, are continuously shrinking their habitats. Yet DeSantis says ongoing research into the secret lives of quokkas could provide insight on how conservationists can save them. 

(Credit: Hideaki Edo/Getty Images)

Though many quokkas on mainland Australia currently live in dense forests, DeSantis and a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University discovered that, for thousands of years prior to European settlement, quokkas lived primarily in more spread-out forests, or “mosaic habitats.” Their study, published in 2020 in the Journal of Zoology, helped “open up conservation strategies,” DeSantis says, such as curbing the population of the quokka’s predators, like foxes. 

“If we can actually reduce and eliminate fox populations in these regions,” she says, “which is actively something that people are trying to do, then we don't necessarily have to manage for pocket populations in the densest parts of the forest — they're fine in these mosaic habitats.”  

Other recent research has examined, for example, how quokka populations cope in the face of wildfires, and has even attempted to map the quokka’s DNA.  

Studies like these aren’t just providing a roadmap for quokka conservation — experts say they could be laying the groundwork for a new vein of research on how animals have adapted to human impacts over time, helping to ensure the smiling faces of quokkas can brighten our days for ages to come. 

“It used to be, ‘let's study animals in these pristine ecosystems,’” DeSantis says. “But a lot of times it's really important to understand how animals are actually adapting to be able to live with us, and for us to coexist in a more urban ecosystem.” 

Read More: Do We Care More About Conservation for Species That Are Aesthetic?

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.