The Australian quokka briefly rose to internet fame in 2012 due to a viral selfie taken with one of the little critters. With its big round eyes and cheery grin, the quokka was dubbed by many as the “happiest animal in the world”. As these things go, a lot of visitors to the small island of Rottnest, just off Australia’s Southwest coast, proceeded to take selfies with the miniature marsupials, despite the quokka’s status as a protected vulnerable species.
The quokka inhabits both Rottnest Island and Bald Island as well as small wooded portions of Australia’s mainland. It’s most commonly found on Rottnest, both because of the small islands large quokka population, but also because of Rottnest’s increasing tourist trade. National Geographic suggests that this might be due to people actively wanting to visit the home of the adorable little selfie-stars, though Rottnest itself is highly developed for tourism.
What is most astonishing is that Rottnest’s tourist development and the increased tourist-traffic to the island have not had a negative impact on the quokka population. They may actually be causing the marsupials to thrive. Since the mammal first gained online adoration five years ago, the population on Rottnest has apparently exploded. What’s more, the usually nocturnal creatures are now commonly seen during the day when there are more people about and will often approach humans, even partially altering its diet to include stolen or salvaged human food. Visitors are still warned not to touch or feed the quokkas and can receive hefty fines if caught interfering with them in any way, though this hasn’t stopped selfies from being a regular highlight of many tourists’ visit to the island.
Rottnest Island has in many ways been idealised for the little critters, with the island’s population of feral cats having been eradicated years ago by wildlife managers. The island also boasts many areas designated for preservation and this, coupled with the tourist areas and maintained the golf course, gives the quokkas security and more comfort than their mainland counterparts. In fact, the quokka population on the mainland has a very different experience, with many natural predators and increased habitat loss due to urban development. Luckily, the Rottnest population is thriving and only seems to be benefitting from its recently obtained popularity. Being adorable is not typically an evolutionary trait for survival, but in this case, it seems that the quokka’s winning smile may have given the species another chance.