Viw Magazine

  • Written by Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | Conservation Biology Research Group, University of Newcastle
Over the coming months, koalas will depend on wildlife hospitals to recover from the effects of unprecedented bushfires. Lachlan G. Howell , Author provided

Thousands of koalas may have died in fires burning through New South Wales but expert evidence to a state parliamentary inquiry on Monday said we are unlikely to ever know the real numbers.

Unprecedented fires have burned through millions of hectares of forest, including koala habitat and rainforests untouched by fire for thousands of years.


Read more: It's only October, so what's with all these bushfires? New research explains it


The devastation won’t stop once the fires are out. Koala populations that survive the fires could be cut off from each other, lowering their genetic diversity and threatening their long-term survival.

To protect Australia’s iconic koalas we need to start freezing their genetic material. With more investment in the fast-developing field of cryogenics, koala hospitals could start taking samples from their patients, creating a vital lifeline for the species as a whole.

Koala-threatening fires are getting worse

Fire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and becoming more intense, made worse by climate change.

This season, there is an above-average risk of serious fires across an extensive range of koala habitat on Australia’s east coast.

Left, Australian seasonal bushfire outlook for the upcoming bushfire season. Right, the comparative koala distribution from January 2017 to 2019. Bushfire and Natural Hazard CRC/Atlas of Living Australia

Experts at the NSW inquiry estimated about 2,000 koalas may have died in fires already this year, and the destruction of habitat means further population declines are inevitable. With areas not usually threatened by fires now at risk, we need new plans for future conservation.

Koalas are highly vulnerable to fire. The heat burns their paws and fur, and the superheated air can cause internal damage to their lungs. The canopy of eucalypt forests is their only refuge, but offers no protection during high-intensity bushfires.

Beyond this direct threat, when large numbers of koalas are killed or badly injured, the genetic diversity of their local populations shrinks.

Over the coming months, koalas will depend heavily on wildlife hospitals for rehabilitation and recovery after fires.

Small, fragmented groups of koalas living in habitat on the edge of urban areas, such as the coastal areas of Port Macquarie and Port Stephens, are particularly at risk.

Port Stephens experienced several fires in 2018 that burned thousands of hectares of koala habitat. This followed a similarly catastrophic fire season five years earlier.

If these events continue at the same rate – or, as predicted by climate modelling, become more intense and more frequent – we may lose sources of koala genetic diversity that cannot be replaced.


Read more: Koalas sniff out juicy leaves and break down eucalypt toxins – it's in their genome


Sudden reductions in population size can cause genetic bottlenecks that lead to inbreeding. Eventually this reduces reproductive fitness and makes extinction more probable.

Take, for example, a koala population like that of Port Macquarie, between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals. We estimate that losing 350 koalas from this group would increase inbreeding by 20-50%. It would take five to ten years for the population to recover, assuming no further fires in that time.

While many volunteers and professionals do fantastic work to help koalas survive fire, we have no strategy for safeguarding genetic diversity and reducing the risk of inbreeding.

But we can take a lesson from botanical gardens, which routinely freeze genetic material for seed banks. Freezing koala sperm, eggs and embryos could offer a way to preserve genetic diversity ahead of further population crashes.


Read more: It's fish on ice, as frozen zoos make a last-ditch attempt to prevent extinction


Artificial reproduction is in its infancy

Artificial reproduction for koalas – and marsupials generally – is developing quickly. Scientists have used freshly collected sperm to artificially inseminate zoo koalas, which resulted in the birth of live young.

However, the technology does not yet exist to freeze, store and then use koala sex cells. Components of this process do exist, but there is no complete system for marsupials.

If that capacity existed, koala hospitals could easily and inexpensively begin collecting genetic samples from their patients.

Although NSW has invested significantly in koala conservation in recent years, we argue that future funding should also support applied research to make this technology a reality for not only koalas but other marsupials.

Koalas and many other native species are exceptionally unprotected in this new era of record-breaking fires. We need to start planning and investing in long-term conservation solutions and new research-based technologies that provide a last line of defence against the possibility of permanent extinction.

Ryan R. Witt receives funding from Taronga Conservation Society Australia and has received funding from the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment and the Ecological Society of Australia. He is affiliated with the University of Newcastle, FAUNA Research Alliance and is a member of Port Stephens Koala and Wildlife Preservation Society.

Chad T. Beranek is affiliated with the University of Newcastle and FAUNA Research Alliance.

John Clulow receives funding from Australian Research Council, NSW State and local government agencies and industry funding for research on threatened species. He is affiliated with the FAUNA Research Alliance (FRA), including chairing a Steering Committee on wildlife biobanking for FAUNABank, an initiative of FRA.

John Rodger has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the Cooperative Research Centres Program. He is affiliated with FAUNA Research Alliance an NGO that fosters and coordinates applied research projects to secure and conserve Australasia's Unique Native Animals.

Lachlan G. Howell is affiliated with FAUNA Research Alliance.

Robert Scanlon has received funding from Glencore and Global Renewables. He is affiliated with the University of Newcastle and Intrepid Landcare.

Authors: Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | Conservation Biology Research Group, University of Newcastle

Read more http://theconversation.com/to-save-koalas-from-fire-we-need-to-start-putting-their-genetic-material-on-ice-128049

The Role Of A Construction Supervisor On A Construction Site

Those looking into building a career in the building and construction industry are afforded a lot of options they can pursue, with responsibilities often being as diverse as the projects themsel...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Writing Hacks You Need to Become a Great Writer

What do you need to mount up your writing skills and become a cooler writer? This venture is highly individual and relies on each particular writer’s personal abilities and expertise. However...

News Company - avatar News Company

Factors to Consider When Looking For Kid’s Birthday Party Venues

Organising huge children's birthday parties begin with finding the right kids birthday party venues. Like every other major activity that requires a bunch of guests, the final venue will dictate...

Ester Adams - avatar Ester Adams

How a Share Registry Works

Australia, the Land Down Under, is a melting pot of cultures, races, and ethnicities. This country embraces diversity and has no tolerance for discrimination of any kind, especially if it is abou...

Ester Adams - avatar Ester Adams

Has Australia really had 60,000 undiagnosed COVID-19 cases?

A preliminary study, posted online this week by researchers at the Australian National University and elsewhere, estimates 71,000 Australians had COVID-19 by mid-July — 60,000 more than official...

Andrew Hayen, Professor of Biostatistics, University of Technology Sydney - avatar Andrew Hayen, Professor of Biostatistics, University of Technology Sydney

How could wearing a mask help build immunity to COVID-19? It’s all about the viral dose

People infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can spread the virus when they speak, sing, cough, sneeze or even just breathe. Scientists think face masks help limit virus spread by ...

Larisa Labzin, Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland - avatar Larisa Labzin, Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland

the pros and cons of different COVID vaccine technologies

ShutterstockThe World Health Organisation lists about 180 COVID-19 vaccines being developed around the world.Each vaccine aims to use a slightly different approach to prepare your immune system to rec...

Suresh Mahalingam, Principal Research Leader, Emerging Viruses, Inflammation and Therapeutics Group, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University - avatar Suresh Mahalingam, Principal Research Leader, Emerging Viruses, Inflammation and Therapeutics Group, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University

Government extends COVID health initiatives at $2 billion cost

The government is extending the COVID health measures for a further six months, until the end of March, in its latest acknowledgement that pandemic assistance will be needed on various fronts for a lo...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

How to clear Victoria's backlog of elective surgeries after a 6-month slowdown? We need to rethink the system

ShutterstockWith the number of COVID-19 cases in Victoria continuing to trend downwards, Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced a phased restart of elective procedures in public and private hospit...

Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute - avatar Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute

Writers Wanted



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion