A James Cook University researcher is part of a team of scientists that will undertake cutting-edge research to help with the conservation of koalas in Australia.
Dr Kyall Zenger, Senior Lecturer at JCU’s School of Marine and Tropical Biology, and researchers from the University of Sydney, San Diego Zoo Global and Australian Ecosystems Foundation Inc. have recently been awarded $115,000 by the Australian Research Council for the genetic research of koalas.
Dr Zenger’s fellow researchers include Professor Herman Raadsma from the University of Sydney, Dr Kellie Leigh from Australian Ecosystems Foundation Inc. and Ms Jennifer Tobey from San Diego Zoo Global.
Dr Zenger said koalas had a patchy distribution throughout eastern Queensland with sightings as far north as Cooktown.
“Although there is little information on exact koala numbers in northern Queensland, government survey data from the state’s south-east indicates a 68 per cent population decline throughout the past decade,” he said.
“It is currently unknown if northern Queensland populations have also suffered this rapid decline, but if continuing threats such as habitat loss, disease and urban encroachment persist, it is highly likely they will follow.”
Magnetic Island remained a particular haven for koalas in the north, he said.
In the three-year project, Dr Zenger and his research colleagues will focus on koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Dr Zenger said koalas were recently listed as a vulnerable species in Queensland, the ACT and New South Wales under national environmental law.
“Although the decline in koala numbers throughout Queensland and Australia is now recognised by both Commonwealth and State legislation, accurate management approaches to prevent further population declines still need to be addressed,” he said.
“There is also little data on current koala population connectivity, which makes it extremely difficult to implement a robust management plan for this species.”
Dr Zenger said scientists needed to determine the geographical spatial scale at which these populations needed to be effectively managed.
“At present, little detailed information is known about population movements among different areas, and whether particular populations are adapted to certain environments.”
Dr Zenger said the ARC grant would enable the research team to utilise advanced DNA technology to perform an Australia-wide genetic audit on the koala.
“This data will provide vital information on koala population declines and movements which will guide active population management including individual animal translocations and reintroductions.
“Without sufficient knowledge of population connectivity and identification of possible local adaptations it would be very difficult to generate comprehensive management plans for koalas.”
Dr Zenger said he had been interested in koalas for more than a decade.
“I actually met my wife on a field trip to Magnetic Island while performing a koala health survey 15 years ago,” he said.
The study will also help answer questions on whether koalas should be broken up into sub-species, and if so how, he said.
“Current koala taxonomic classifications from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria appear to be based primarily on state boundaries and have little biological meaning.”
Issued: July 11, 2012
JCU Media contact: Caroline Kaurila (07) 4781 4586