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The Aussie icon koala in danger of extinction?
You would think that such an Aussie icon as the koala would not be in danger of extinction. Unfortunately the protection provided this unique animal is insufficient to guarantee a better outcome at this time. Local population extinction is occurring currently as koala numbers continue to drop; mainly resulting from habitat loss and fragmentation, though maybe also from an increase in disease expression (e.g. Chlamydia, koala retrovirus) in koala populations under stress.
In the 1920’s, approximately a dozen koalas were relocated to the tropical oasis of St Bees Island off the coast of central Queensland and the population has grown to 250-300 koalas. This study site acts as a "classroom” where koalas can be studied in a habitat without the major human impacts on koalas of housing development; agriculture, forestry and mining activities; cars; and domestic dogs. For this ongoing project, koalas have GPS and proximity loggers placed on them in conjunction with a radio-collar so that their movements, habitat use, and interactions with each other can be documented over several months. Health assessments are performed under anesthesia for each capture and release, and include detection of Chlamydia and koala retrovirus variants. Data is analyzed to improve our understanding of koala ecology and diagnostic results are correlated with koala interactions and reproductive success to measure the influence of diseases on population dynamics.
The Brisbane Valley site (southeast Queensland) is the comparative "reality” to St Bees Island; the same studies are performed on the koalas and comparisons between the two sites can be used to measure the impact of human activities in the region. The results can then be used to drive real conservation outcomes for this population. For example, trees are limited to along the roads, along the creek beds that intersect the roads, and solitary trees in the middle of cattle paddocks. A better understanding of how koalas use the trees in this region can help shape conservation strategies. If trees within paddocks are found to be used frequently, additional koala habitat could be planted by farmers. If tree use is limited to those along the roads, it would be better to remove the trees from one side of the road and double the habitat on the other side of the road; thus eliminating the need for koalas to cross against the traffic.
This month, we are highlighting Jennifer Hausmann, a resident veterinarian at Milwaukee County Zoo. See the story about her residency program.