What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

While researching an unrelated topic last year, I found a cool tidbit and tucked it away (as I often do) to use in a story someday. Since I doubt I ever will, perhaps one of you can put this research to good use.

First, a question.

What do you think is a forensic investigator’s worst nightmare?

Did anyone guess a cute ’n cuddly koala? No? I didn’t think so. In all fairness, I would never have guessed it either, but the koala could keep investigators on their toes. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Apes & Chimpanzees

As children, we’re taught apes and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. The similarities are obvious. No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity. Both animals also have astonishing intelligence.

Remember Koko?

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, stunned researchers with her emotional depth and ability to communicate in sign language. She garnered international celebrity status with her vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover twice. First in October 1978, with a selfie Koko snapped in a mirror. Then in January 1985, when National Geographic ran a story about Koko and her pet kitten.

“Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached,” Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary

In addition to language, Koko’s behavior revealed human emotions. She also seemed to have a sense of humor, and even a bit of playful mischievousness, as portrayed in this video of Koko and Robin Williams.

There’s no denying the human qualities of apes and chimps. But did you know a koala’s fingerprints are so similar to humans the Australian police once feared they’d cause confusion at crime scenes? It’s true.

Similar confusion occurred in the UK during a time when unsolved crime was at an all-time high. In fact, in 1975, British police raided the ape houses at London and Twycross Zoos. According to The Independent, the police targeted “Half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.”

The objective was to fingerprint these animals, partly because the UK police referred to smudged or unclear fingerprints as “monkey prints.”

“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime, they would not know it was not human.” Steve Haylock, City of London Police fingerprint bureau

The chimpanzees and orangutans didn’t mind being fingerprinted. If you’re curious, none of the prints led to solving the string of unsolved crimes. All the furry suspects appeared to be upstanding members of society. 😉

Meanwhile, in Australia

Police feared koalas may have contaminated a criminal investigation. Why? Because like apes and chimpanzees, koalas possess freakishly human fingerprints. The deltas, loops, and whirl patterns of a koala’s fingerprint are as individual as our own. Yet most tree-dwelling mammals don’t possess humanlike prints.

“It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” said Macie Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “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.”

Some researchers believe that even after closely inspecting the fingerprints under a microscope, investigators would not be able to distinguish a human print from fingerprints left by a koala. Even their closest relatives—kangaroos and wombats—don’t possess fingerprints. The weird part is Koala prints seemed to have evolved independently, and much more recent than primates.

Can you guess which print is human?

Photo credit: Macie Hennenberg, et al. and naturalSCIENCE

Click the image to enlarge.

Top row: Standard ink fingerprints of an adult male koala (left) and adult male human (right).

Bottom row: Scanning electron microscope images of epidermis covering fingertips of the same koala (left) and the same human (right).



What do humans, apes, chimps, and koalas have in common?

The need to grasp. Yes, it could be that simple.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered koala prints in 1996 and wrote a paper on their findings:

“Koalas … feed by climbing vertically onto the smaller branches of eucalyptus trees, reaching out, grasping handfuls of leaves and bringing them to the mouth… These forces must be precisely felt for fine control of movement and static pressures and hence require orderly organization of the skin surface.”

Makes sense, right?

But wait—there’s more!

I discovered one other fascinating tidbit about fingerprints that I never knew.

Genetics form the base of a fingerprint, but they are personalized when the baby touches the inside of their mother’s womb, resulting in unique whirls, deltas, and loops. Hence why identical twins don’t share identical fingerprints. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

I hope my discoveries kickstart your creativity in new and unsuspecting ways. Happy Labor Day to our U.S. readers! May your burgers be sizzlin’, the buns toasted to perfection, and your beverages be cold. 😀 

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writerslife, #WritingCommunity, research and tagged , , , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

29 thoughts on “What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

  1. That’s fascinating. I had no idea fingerprints are formed from touching the wall of the womb. Incidentally, there’s another KoKo video out there of KoKo being told that Robin Williams passed away and she signs that she is sad and crying.

  2. Good morning, Sue. I knew about the monkeys and the development of fingerprints, but I had no idea that koalas even had fingerprints. Thanks for the entertaining and informative post, and the Labor Day wishes, which I am sending backatcha! Also wishing Shanah Tovah to all of our Jewish friends, who celebrate the beginning of a new year at sundown.

  3. Fascinating… I’m always learning something other than writing tips here… can’t wait for this to be a Jeopardy answer some day…

    …and I guess that just proves the lil’ Ozzy marsupials aren’t koala-fied to be bears in the first place, huh? ?

  4. Thanks, Sue, for a very interesting post and a kickstart to our creativity.

    I write middle grade fantasy and set each book in a new organ system (heart, brain, bones, etc.) The next book will be set in the Skin World (the skin is the largest organ of our body). And your discussion of finger prints gives me a whole bunch of ideas. Thanks!

    Have a sizzlin’, toasted, yet cold, perfect Labor Day!

  5. Fascinating, Sue. Asking about commonalities of ape and man brought to mind Mark Twain’s observation:

    “I believe that our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey. I believe that whenever a human being, of even the highest intelligence and culture, delivers an opinion upon a matter apart from his particular and especial line of interest, training and experience, it will always be an opinion so foolish and so valueless a sort that it can be depended upon to suggest to our Heavenly Father that the human being is another disappointment and that he is no considerable improvement upon the monkey.”

  6. Happy Labor Day, Sue!

    What a fascinating post. Great details about animal fingerprints, and it was wonderful to see that video again of Robin Williams visiting Koko. She was amazing, and proof that animals can have deep emotions.

    I had no idea that fingerprints were formed in the womb. I’m with you about how that makes me feel–teary-eyed. My mother passed away comparatively young at 51, and it awes me to realize I carry physical impressions of her literally at my fingertips. Thank you.

    Have a wonderful holiday!

  7. Good morning, Sue, and thanks for another wonderful post.

    The notion that we carry the imprint of our mother’s womb on our own hands is so heart-warming. A great thought to start the day with.

    Happy Labor Day and L’Shana Tova!

  8. Wow, Sue, so many fascinating tidbits. thank you!

    My WIP involves DNA and mistaken identities. With your permission, I’ll use the fingerprint difference between twins to layer in more complication. You always dig up the most amazing stuff.

    Loved when Koko took Robin’s glasses and put them on.

    Given the choice of hanging out with humans or hanging out with animals, I’ll take animals!

  9. Count on you, Sue, to find something new. I did not know that fingerprints developed from womb contact, although I did know that fingerprint friction ridges and valleys evolved for grasping. In my wildest imagination, though, I never gave any thought to koala prints. As the others said – fascinating! Happy labor day 🙂

  10. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

    Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

    This is priceless, Sue! Thanks for an uplifting, informative, and downright entertaining post. Loved seeing Robin Williams again. What a loss to the world. And his new friend was amazing. What a gift!

    I must see if a koala fits into one of WIPs… 🙂

    • Thank you, Deb! The loss of Robin Williams felt like a gut punch to so many of us. Now, at least their beautiful friendship can continue. <3

      Wishing you an amazing day!

  11. Poe would have enjoyed using this info in “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

    To add to the idea kickstart, I’ve mentioned my eldest brother, the abusive jerk. He left town in a cloud of legal charges involving drugs and other Sixties stupidity so a very, very low scale wanted person. Years later, he got back in touch with the parents. Yeah, he wanted money.

    Anyway, he once told my mom the story of finding a tiny human skeleton in his rented backyard where he was digging a garden. After long minutes of freaking out because he was a wanted person, he realized it was a chimp skeleton, not a murdered child. So he didn’t have to call the police and rat himself out. I’m sure he told Mom he would have called, but I doubt it.

    Anyway, my writer brain churned around with this idea of this being a human child and the protag being in much deeper legal poo so he decides to find the murderer himself. This idea never fit the kind of story I wrote so anyone is welcome to it.

  12. “No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity.”

    I never intend to get close enough to do so. Charla Nash stared into the eyes of a friend’s pet chimp just before he attacked her without provocation*. They are not humans. They are wild animals. When angered or excited, chimps have the conscience of a rattlesnake.

    * There’s a reason I’m not providing a link.

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