Many of you might have come across photos of a marsupial with a beaming smile on your social media feed. Meet quokkas, which are rightfully termed as the “world’s happiest animal” for their unique grin.
According to the National Geographic, back in 2012, a smartphone-wielding man stumbled across this teddy bear-sized marsupial in Rottnest Island, in Western Australia. Enamored by the strange rat-like creature with a delightful content look seemingly permanent on its face, the man snapped a quick selfie with it and posted it online. When it went viral, the species was thrown into the spotlight in a positive way.
Not long after, tourists from different parts of the world started to flock to Rottnest, named after the Dutch word for “rat’s nest” due to the quokkas’ infestations that Dutch settlers stumbled across when the island was first discovered in 1658. People visiting the island, which sits just offshore off the city of Perth, started to snap selfies with the creatures, and the tourism industry started to boom.
These rare and unusual animals belong to the same family as kangaroos and wallabies. In addition, these herbivorous creatures are believed to live for an average of up to 10 years.
Most people can’t seem to get enough of these nocturnal creatures because they are not really scared of humans and are easily approachable, thus making them the perfect animals for selfies.
“The quokkas are themselves very inquisitive, so they will look at the camera,” Michelle Reynolds, the island’s executive director, told PEOPLE. “And I’ve seen them smiling.”
However, in the mainland near Perth, the quokkas’ population has started to dwindle.
According to research that was published in the Journal of Zoology in February 2020 by scientists from Vanderbilt University, invasive species such as European red foxes, rabbits, and goats are likely to be a cause for their decline.
“Australia has experienced catastrophic losses due to warming temperatures, drought, and the combination of these effects on resident animals,” Larisa DeSantis, co-author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt, said in a news release. “The iconic wildlife Australia is best known for, evolved largely in isolation and has been in decline since Europeans introduced foxes, rabbits, goats, and other animals that have preyed upon and/or competed with native animals for food and water.”
In addition, the study also went on to further analyze the teeth of the quokkas from both the fossils and modern specimens. By examining the enamel layers of tooth samples, researchers were able to determine the kinds of plants mainland and island quokkas have consumed over time.
“Piecing together the ecological history of the quokka helped us better understand why they are an isolated and vulnerable species today,” lead author Elinor Scholtz, an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt, said. “We learned that quokkas on mainland Australia today occupy denser forests than in the past, likely to avoid predation by foxes. In contrast, quokkas typically live in more open habitats and feed on tougher vegetation on islands that lack foxes.”
However, Rottnest Island still remains one of the places where these animals are found. But according to the release, every summer, due to lack of freshwater, the number of quokkas on the island has subsequently been decreasing too. In addition, the destruction caused by the bushfires has made these vulnerable animals more prone to extinction.