Written By: Emma Websdale
Australia’s native koala population could be wiped out as climate change continues to deliver extreme weathers and temperatures across the country, according to a report published by the University of Sydney.
Tracking 40 koalas by satellite in northwestern New South Wales, a team of researchers from the University of Sydney have found that unless Australia changes its land management practices, koalas could suffer from substantial drop in numbers.
The three-year study, led by researcher Mathew Crowther has found that koalas have been seeking refuge from a number of trees to escape hot daytime temperatures before moving on to feed on eucalyptus during the night when temperatures are much cooler.
The study, the first of its kind to compare where tree-dwelling marsupials spend their time during day and night, found that mature trees containing dense leaves were critical to the species survival offering them protection from escalating day time temperatures and extreme weather events such as bushfires.
The report estimates that increased frequency of heatwaves due to climate change are likely to push higher numbers of koalas at risk of death, after witnessing a 2009 heatwave killing off 25% of the university’s tracked koalas.
Formerly hunted for their woolly coats, and currently suffering from habitat destruction from several causes, including wildfires, droughts, and logging, the species is being pushed closer to extinction. According to the Australian Koala Foundation, almost 65% of the koalas’ forests have been lost since 1788, with the remaining 35% under threat from land clearing.
Furthermore, attacks from feral and domestic dogs alongside road accidents accounts for the death of 4,000 koalas a year. In just the past 20 years, koala populations in the state of Queensland have declined by 40% and also by a third in New South Wales. It is estimated that as few as 43,000 remain in the wild.
Climate scientists call for conservation action as they warn how the impacts of climate change – rises in temperature, increased bushfires, longer dry periods and severe droughts pose severe risks to the species.
“Ensuring a habitat has a good supply of feed trees and protecting koalas from predators is not enough to ensure their survival”, said Mathew Crowther, lead researcher of the study.
“An urgent emphasis needs to be placed on retaining taller, mature trees such as remnant paddock trees, and the planting of both food and shelter trees, especially in more protected gullies to try to offset the impact of high temperatures.”
Current conservation efforts for the species include a trial vaccine for chlamydia, to help protect koalas from disease – a joint research project between the Australian Museum and Queensland University of Technology.
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