researchers aim to learn more about koala survival after 2020 Australia bushfires

researchers aim to learn more about koala survival after 2020 Australia bushfires

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2020 has been a year of unprecedented, heart-wrenching losses. In addition to the devastation of the deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping across human populations, many regions have been suffering from worsening effects of climate change, especially in the form of fires. Australia is one area that took the brunt of these blazes, as experts referred to this year’s bushfire season as one of the worst in recent history.

Yet, there is a glimmer of light: by observing the aftermath of the bushfire season, scientists may be able to gain new insight into one species’ survivorship, and use the newfound knowledge to support their persistence in the future. This species is the koala, one of the most deeply impacted victims of the historical blazes.

The Devastation of the 2020 Australian Bushfire Season

The flames engulfed urbanized and natural landscapes across Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory, according to Statista. In one of the worst-affected areas, New South Wales, most of the land lost comprised natural forest habitats, and with it, approximately 1.5 billion animals.

One of the species impacted by these losses is the koala, Phascolarctos cinereus. The devastation was so bad that Chris Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, told National Geographic, “I think there’s no doubt that some species will go extinct.” According to a report from June, at least 5,000 koalas are believed to have died in the fires, while more recent estimates report losses in the tens of thousands. The species may be extinct in 2050.

Dr. Natasha Speight, a koala health specialist from the University of Adelaide, School of Animal and Veterinary sciences, says that the koala is especially vulnerable at this time because they “are eucalypt specialists and rely upon eucalypt trees for food, water, and shelter.” Their habitats were razed to the ground this year, resulting in the deaths of almost 80% of koalas on Kangaroo Island, and at least 30% of those in New South Wales.

What the Scientists Hope to Learn

A University of Adelaide research team has been given the opportunity to study clinical data of koalas that were injured in the fires. Ultimately, they will apply this information to increase koalas’ chances of survival in the future, even in the face of inevitable new bushfires.

The project will be funded by the Morris Animal Foundation’s Australian Wildlife Fund, and will specifically focus on clinical records collected by veterinarians and rescuers who attended to affected koalas in the following locations:

  • Kangaroo Island
  • Cudlee Creek (near Adelaide)
  • New South Wales (near Port Macquarie)

Dr. Speight stated, “The findings will help identify risk factors and treatment outcomes for koalas related to burns, smoke inhalation, dehydration, and disease. This new information will be essential for caring for koalas impacted by future bushfires.”

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