Skip to main content
Lead researcher Dr Mella on on the farm where the study is being carried out. Credit Caroline Marschner.
News_

Koalas driven to drink by climate change

3 March 2017
Koalas were thought mostly to eat and sleep, not drink

Leaves were thought to be all koalas needed but video footage shows koalas are thirsty; it is believed climate change is transforming the national icon's behavior, adding to stresses from heatwaves, tree-felling and disease.

It's believed koalas are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they rely exclusively on trees.
Dr Valentina Mella

Video surveillance

Researchers of this unique study were surprised to find koalas were very thirsty, drinking at the artificial water stations day and night for an average of more than 10 minutes – and this was in autumn-winter.

A regular visitor to a neighbouring farm’s bird bath on The Dip property in Gunnedah disappeared after a recent heatwave. Credit Kate Wilson. Top of page: Lead researcher Dr Mella on on the farm where the study is being carried out. Credit Caroline Marschner.

A regular visitor to a neighbouring farm disappeared after a recent heatwave. Credit: Kate Wilson. Top of page: Dr Valentina Mella on the farm where the study is being carried out. Credit: Caroline Marschner.

The dry Australian climate is thought to be ideal for the native tree-borne animal, the koala – believed only to need leaves for its nourishment and seldom drink water – but University of Sydney researchers are concerned climate change is driving the national icon to change its behaviour, as shown by new video surveillance.

Monitored during winter, the vulnerable species in the proclaimed Koala Capital of the World in Gunnedah were found to be very thirsty, drinking from the artificial water stations day and night, for an average of more than 10 minutes.

Conservation biologists and veterinarians from the University of Sydney, who designed and analysed the remote surveilance, expect the results being compiled from summer will be even more extreme.

The koalas not only drank in the tree tops but even left the safety of their homes to seek the water drinkers on ground during the day, when they would normally be asleep. 

Dr Valentina Mella, a postdoctoral researcher in the University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said: “What will happen when temperatures rise in summer to make the leaves even drier and the koalas require more relief?”

“This is the first study to document the role of water and the possible benefit of water supplementation for koala populations,” Dr Mella said.

To help researchers set up the long-term study, which started last year, farmer Robert Frend designed the water stations, which he called Blinky Drinkers. Although Gunnedah was the only town to experience an increase in its koala population in New South Wales just over a decade ago after a series of tree-planting campaigns, its population was later slashed by 25 percent during a heat wave in 2009.

“Increasing hot and dry conditions will mean more droughts and heat waves affecting the koalas’ habitat,” Dr Mella said.

“It is believed that koalas are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they rely exclusively on trees – not only to sleep on but also for eating, which together comprise of the bulk of their activities.”

Koalas are listed as vulnerable in both national and state legislations because of drastic population declines and local extinctions.

Dr Mella said koalas’ vulnerable status had been largely attributed to loss and fragmentation of habitat, disease, dog attacks and collisions with vehicles.

Her research investigating the role of climate change follows on from previous studies that have shown the gum leaves koalas eat could dry out, with koalas rejecting the foliage when leaves had a water content of less than a juicy 55-65 percent.

“The scientific literature is filled with statements saying that koalas do not need to drink free water but our results show that koalas could benefit from water supplementation.

“This is a perfect example of how the understanding of animal behaviour can be applied to solve pressing problems.

“We hope to use our findings to create a practical plan to manage Australia's rural lands for this iconic species.”


On 18 September the University community will come together for a 24-hour fundraising challenge called Pave the Way, to raise funds for this research and to install more drinking fountains for koalas.

With no administration fees, 100 per cent of your donation goes straight to this project, so every gift counts. The generosity of students, staff, alumni, parents and friends has already made such a huge difference, and with your help today, we can continue to make a real impact.

It’s never too early to give – and even the smallest gifts can go a long way to help us protect an Australian icon.

Vivienne Reiner

Media and PR Adviser (Science, Veterinary Science, Agriculture)
Address
  • Room 192, Level 1 Carslaw F07

Related articles

14 March 2019

Why the perfect office temperature is a myth

Air conditioning industries claim 22 degrees Celsius as the uniform temperature for offices to ensure peak performance by workers. Research suggests that it's not quite that simple write Professor Richard de Dear, Fan Zhang and Professor Peter Hancock.
14 March 2019

Prestigious title awarded for marine robotics

Professor Stefan Williams has been recognised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers for research excellence in the field of oceanographic survey and marine robotics.
14 March 2019

How marine snow cools the planet

Researchers in the School of Geosciences have mapped out how carbonate formations have helped regulate Earth's temperature over 120 million years. Dr Andriana Dutkiewicz warns global warming could release some of that carbon into the atmosphere.
12 March 2019

Sydney united to build a Quantum Harbour City

Sydney is fast becoming recognised as the global destination for quantum technology. Research teams at the University of Sydney and UNSW are finding that cooperation alongside competition provide a fertile ground for advancement.
09 March 2019

Universities welcome NSW Government backing for Sydney Quantum Academy

The University of Sydney is working with three other universities to establish the Sydney Quantum Academy, helping to ensure that cutting-edge quantum research translates into a sustainable industry and jobs.