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Participants: Dr Desley Whisson
Aims and Background: The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) has suffered population declines due primarily to extensive habitat clearance and fragmentation, and hunting following European settlement of Australia. Climate change is an additional threat that is likely to have significant adverse effects on koala populations. Mortality rates may increase as a result of koalas' low tolerance for prolonged hot weather and the potential for more extreme and frequent bushfires. Furthermore, koala food resources may decline due to climate-induced changes in the composition and structure of eucalypt communities, and the nutritional quality and moisture content of leaves. In areas of mainland Victoria and for some islands where koala densities are locally high, high browsing pressure on preferred food trees accelerates the decline in food resources. An understanding of how koalas respond to environmental change is critical to the conservation of the species and its habitat. This study will investigate habitat selection, movement patterns, population dynamics, energetics and behaviour of koalas in a landscape where resources are patchily-distributed and declining due to environmental causes and koala overbrowsing. In addition to determining the response of koalas to environmental change, this project will provide insight into of the processes involved in koala population regulation and the reasons for localised overabundance in southern populations.
Scientific significance and innovation: Surprisingly little is known about the ecology and behaviour of southern populations of koalas. This study will address key knowledge gaps related to the dynamics, movement patterns, habitat selection, and behaviour of wild-living koalas towards understanding the response of koalas to environmental change. The study will be multidisciplinary in nature, integrating aspects of landscape, population, and behavioural ecology. We will utilise innovative tracking and micro-datalogger technologies to evaluate movement, activity patterns and energy expenditure of koalas with respect to koala population density and environmental variables. We will also take a GIS approach to examine the relationship between koala populations and distribution of their preferred habitats, and temporal changes in habitats.
Potential national benefit and strategic alignment with the aims of the CIE: This project addresses the National Research Priority of An Environmentally Sustainable Australia, and goals of Sustainable use of Australia’s biodiversity and Responding to climate change and variability. The koala is an iconic species that through its appeal to international visitors, contributes significantly to Australia’s tourism industry. The species is declining as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, vehicle collisions and predation by dogs. Climate change and its negative impact on the quality and distribution of food resources is an additional threat to populations. Understanding how koalas respond to environmental change is critical to conserving koalas and their habitat. This project is clearly aligned with the vision of the CIE, addressing ecological questions that are important to understanding the response of organisms and ecosystems to environmental change.