Friday, April 10, 2015

Why being a koala is pretty rough

wildlife koala habitat fragmentation
An injured koala recuperates in hospital.
Would you ever want to be a koala? Over the past few years I’ve unwittingly become closer and closer acquainted with koalas. It started with a simple assent to a colleague’s request to swab some koalas when I was visiting Western Australia. That was for the purpose of detecting and identifying a pathogenic fungus, cryptococcus, which may cause mild to severe and even fatal disease in koalas.

The swabbage snowballed into hosting an Italian mycologist at my house, which turned out to be wonderful as she is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. That snowballed into being a bridesmaid for said mycologist in Italy, which turned into hosting a honeymoon visit in Australia, which yesterday transformed into accompanying one but four mycologists on a field trip to look for the environmental niche of pathogenic cryptococcal species (in plain English: swabbing trees that koalas are found in). I even understood what they were talking about. One moral of this story is that saying yes can change your life in unexpected ways.

koala eucalypt
There is a koala in this tree. It was much, much higher than I expected (look carefully, near the centre of the image). This was a windy day and the branch was swaying nauseatingly.
Another is this: koalas have it pretty rough. People think they sit around chewing gum leaves and chilling out but they're never far from danger - much of it imposed by us. They have to contend with dog attacks, bushfires, trauma (mostly caused by motor vehicles but this can be caused by falling out of trees – and when the wind picked up yesterday I realised why) and relentless habitat destruction. On the Tomaree Peninsula, for example, where a major road cuts right through a koala corridor (resulting in many fatalities), proposed developments threaten to fragment this habitat further. No wonder koalas are stressed and vulnerable to a range of diseases like cryptococcosis, chlamydia, lymphoma, and koala retroviruses. 

We met some injured koalas and heard from the dedicated carers who treat, rehabilitate and release these animals. Even sourcing food for these guys in care is a massive undertaking. They will only eat certain species of eucalypts and the volume they can chew through is incredible. Its all about keeping the gut moving - when they stop eating for 48 hours they can be challenging to save. While learning about diseases like cryptococcus is important, acting to prevent habitat destruction and fragmentation is the most important thing we can do.

tawny frogmouths tawny frogmouth camoflage
These tawny frogmouths were well disguised in a tree also inhabited by koalas.
If you want to find out more about protecting koala habitat, and what one local group is doing to help, visit the Hunter Koala Preservation Society here.

If you want to learn more about pathogenic fungi that affect koalas, consider attending the International Society for Human and Animal Mycology (ISHAM) conference in May. More info here.