Research Comment: Koalas In Australia - An Enigma

19 Jul 2022 5 min read

Koalas in Australia - An enigma

by Koala Life Research Manager, Dr Ian Hough


Much has appeared in the media of late around the dire situation in which the koalas in north-eastern Australia find themselves. There is no doubt that within this part of the koala’s distribution there are some extremely challenging and difficult issues to be dealt with. Media headlines such as 'Functionally Extinct' and 'Facing Extinction by 2050' certainly capture the imagination of the Australian population. The devastating fires of 2019-20 also galvanised an international interest in the future of the koala. The previous Federal government allocated up to $80,000,000 to assist with securing the future of the koala in north-eastern Australia. The Queensland and New South Wales State Governments have also provided large amounts of money to help deal with the koala ‘crisis’. No Australian could imagine a future without arguably the world’s most charismatic animal.

Is the current level of funding adequate, job done, walk away? Most certainly not. Koalas in southern Australia face an equally challenging future. Unfortunately, this challenge has yet to be embraced fully by Federal and State Governments, with the focus almost entirely around the koalas in northern Australia. Even the Federal ‘Draft National Koala Recovery Plan for the Koala, 2021’ essentially ignores Victoria and South Australia and focuses entirely on koalas in their northern distribution.

Much of this delineation around funding and the future of the koala is based on early 20th century postulations about 3 distinct subspecies of koalas. More recently three subspecies became two, the northern subspecies and the southern subspecies. This led to the notion that the northern subspecies was distinct and in trouble and the southern subspecies was numerous and ‘safe’.

With the development of more specific genetic techniques, it has been apparent for some time, firstly Houlden et al 1999, then Kjeldsen et al 2016 and now Kjeldsen et al 2019, that the subspeciation of the koala is not supported by genetic studies. There is one koala species and no subspecies. Future management of the koala in Australia should be around there being a single species and not around geographic, political demarcations.

Let us be quite clear, all koalas in Australia are facing uncertain futures (Draft National Recovery Plan for the Koala, 2021). Deforestation, habitat clearance, roads, dogs, disease, loss of genetic diversity, and natural disasters are affecting all populations. Research, management practice changes and significant investment in the future of the koala, Australia wide, is now required. Koalas should be considered a single evolutionary significant unit (Neaves et al 2016, Kjeldsen et al 2019) and the national management of this endearing icon should reflect this.


References

  • Houlden, BA, Costello, BH, Sharkey, D, Fowler, EV, Melzer, A, Ellis, W, Carrick, F, Baverstock, PR and Elphinstone, MS (1999), Phylogeographic differentiation in the mitochondrial control region in the koala, Phascolarctos cinereus (Goldfuss 1817). Molecular Ecology, 8: 999-1011. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-294x.1999.00656.x
  • Kjeldsen, SR, Zenger, KR, Leigh, K et al. Genome-wide SNP loci reveal novel insights into koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) population variability across its range. Conserv Genet 17, 337–353 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592...
  • Neaves LE, Frankham GJ, Dennison S, FitzGibbon S, Flannagan C, et al. (2016) Phylogeography of the Koala, (Phascolarctos cinereus), and Harmonising Data to Inform Conservation. PLOS ONE 11(9): e0162207. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162207