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Saving the koala - a genetic approach


17 July 2012

Koala conservation is not just about numbers but also ensuring genetic diversity, say the researchers.
Koala conservation is not just about numbers but also ensuring genetic diversity, say the researchers.

Following the recent listing of koalas as a threatened species in NSW and Queensland, a team of scientists has received federal funding to undertake cutting-edge research to help with koala conservation.

Scientists from the University of Sydney, in collaboration with San Diego Zoo Global, James Cook University and the Australian Ecosystems Foundation, have received a three year Australian Research Council Linkage grant for the koala research.

"While the threatened species listing is welcome and a step in the right direction, in many situations looking at numbers alone is just not meaningful in conservation terms," said researcher Dr Kellie Leigh, an Associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Science and Executive Officer of the Australian Ecosystems Foundation.

"There is a critical need to understand the genetic diversity of these populations and for management to focus on maintaining maximum fitness levels so that koalas can continue to adapt to pressures like changing habitats under climate change. "

The project will utilise whole-genome DNA technology to map conservation units which will provide information to guide koala management and identify populations that are most under threat.

"Luckily new genomic technologies can now allow us to assess genetic diversity within the species and hence capacity to resist disease and adapt to specific environments," says Professor Herman Raadsma, Director of Reprogen Animal Biosciences at the University of Sydney.

"It also allows a scientifically informed approach to identify genetic groups at high risk of extinction and in need of priority conservation management."

Dr Kyall Zenger from James Cook University adds that "without sufficient knowledge of population connectivity and identification of possible local adaptations it will be very difficult to generate comprehensive management plans."

The study will also help answer questions on whether koalas should be broken up into sub-species, and if so how. Current classifications are based on political state boundaries and have little biological meaning.

San Diego Zoo Global has worked with a number of critically endangered species to evaluate population health and diversity. "We have collaborated with researchers in the field studying koala behavior for over a decade," said Jennifer Tobey, Behavioral Biologist for the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research. "We plan to continue our work to understand population dynamics of this iconic species by focusing on population diversity as well."

Dr Leigh adds: "We need to conserve the koala right across the species range if we want to hang on to this iconic animal, and we are excited to have received support for this project as it directly addresses that need."


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Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0403 067 342, verity.leatherdale@sydney.edu.au