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Koala poo holds the key to secure populations into the future

Published:31 March 2021

Researcher Dr Flavia Santamaria holds koala poo samples which could hold the key to the future wellbeing of the species.

A Central Queensland researcher is delving into the chemical make-up of koala poo in key areas of Queensland to determine how stressed the species may be.

Koala researcher Dr Flavia Santamaria said that there’s mounds of information about the health of koalas that can be extracted from a few pellets of poo and this information could help secure koala populations into the future.

“We are currently looking at chemicals related to cortisol, also called cortisol metabolites, in the poo which can tell us about the stress levels of the animals,” Dr Santamaria explained.

“We know that increased stress in koalas can induce an increase in cortisol which may be reflected in increased faecal cortisol metabolite values.”

Dr Santamaria’s study of koala poo, collected from a wildlife facility in South-East Queensland over a 12-month period, will act as a baseline for future studies on stress in wild koalas.

“To establish a link between stress and the activity of the adrenocortical gland which produces cortisol, we first had to determine a baseline for male and female koalas during mating and non-mating season,” she explained.

“This is the first study of its kind to provide a baseline for an entire year.”

She said while acute stress can be determined through a blood sample, chronic, or persistent stress levels may be detected in the koala faeces and collecting pellet samples is a non-invasive, hands-off approach that doesn’t further stress the animal.

CQUni’s study was conducted in partnership with the University of Queensland, Monash Proteomics and Metabolomics Facility, and a researcher from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria.

She and the research team hope to determine what is stressing koala populations in the wild and how these stresses may be affecting the health and wellbeing of the species.

“Habitat clearing is one of the problems we believe is affecting the stress levels of koalas.

“If you clear their habitat, koalas are forced to roam around more than they would otherwise, forcing them to cross roads and enter residential yards where they become at risk of being injured or killed.

“We also know that stressed animals are more likely to develop diseases and become ill, similar to how humans get sick when they are stressed.

“A follow-up study is progressing to determine if there are clear links between stress in koalas and the increase in diseases in the species.

“This study has the potential to inform koala habitat management to ensure the survival of koala populations in the future.”