What’s killing the koalas? Just about everything. Habitat destruction, disease, dogs, wild fires and now climate change poses the latest risk to the survival of Australia’s iconic animal, according to a new study.
Scientists from the University of Sydney spent three years studying the habits and habitat of a colony of 40 koalas living in a rural patch of the state of New South Wales. The marsupial is an extremely finicky eater—the typical two-year-old child is a gourmand by comparison—and subsists solely on a particular type of eucalyptus leaf. The researchers, who tracked the koalas with GPS, found that the nocturnal “arboreal folivores” use two different types of trees. They prefer one for feeding and then move to another taller, shadier tree to take shelter during their 20-hour naps.
“As daytime temperatures rose, koalas increasingly selected taller trees at lower elevations,” the scientists wrote. “Our results demonstrate that koalas need taller trees, and non-feed species with shadier/denser foliage, to provide shelter from heat.”
Problem is, the heat keeps rising; Australia experienced its hottest month on record in September. That’s sparking ever-more destructive bush fires that are obliterating food and shelter for the koala. Like the comparatively cute American pika being forced to the peak of its mountain habitat by climate change, the koala will eventually reach the top of the tree with no where else to go—that is, if it can find any trees left.
The scientists’ short-term solution? Plant more trees. “Retaining and planting trees that provide optimum habitat will help arboreal folivores cope with the more frequent droughts and heat waves expected with climate change,” they wrote.
The sad truth, though, is that it’s far more likely that Australians will kill off the koala with cars, tract homes and strip malls before climate change takes the final toll. Koala populations in Queensland, the animal’s stronghold, have crashed in recent decades as unbridled development in the state—also the epicenter of Australia’s coal mining boom—has fragmented its habitat and subjected the surviving animals to predation from dogs and the family SUV.
Just how bad is it? A 2012 study found that in rural southwest Queensland, the koala population plunged from 60,000 to 11,000 over the past two decades. But don’t expect the Australian government to come to the rescue. Since 2008, the federal government has devoted a grand total of A$13.6 million (US$12.7 million) to protect a critter that is a tourist bonanza. Contrast that with help for coal mining conglomerates. Minerals giant Rio Tino claimed A$1.1 billion in government tax credits in 2012.