A Refuge of Hope for Koalas

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By Julie Miller

Cool, fresh air and a diversity of landscapes are a major lure for visitors to the Blue Mountains. And now, it seems, these qualities may be key to the very future of Australia’s most beloved furry icon – the koala.

A new study led by not-for-profit organisation Science for Wildlife is examining if the Blue Mountains can be a refuge of hope for the endangered marsupial, with its deep gullies and cooler climes potentially providing suitable habitat for koalas and other species at risk from climate extremes.

Under the study, researchers will track koalas fitted with temperature monitors to determine their movements at different altitudes, with the aim of understanding what habitats and landscapes different koala populations prefer during extreme weather, including heat waves and drought.

“A climate refuge area is one that bucks the general weather trend,” explains Executive Director of Science for Wildlife, Dr Kellie Leigh. “Here in the Blue Mountains, we have 1000 metres in altitude, with higher rainfall, more moisture and steep gullies where it may be 10 degrees cooler on a hot day. We call it heterogeneity – a diversity across the landscape that suggests that a few different species might persist here for longer.”

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The research is targeting two different parts of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area that harbour known koala populations – one in the Hawkesbury/Wollemi National Park area on the eastern side of the region, and one in the Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the west.

“We’re tracking around 35 koalas at the moment, split across the two sites with totally different tree species and microclimates,” Dr Leigh says. “We follow the koalas weekly, see that trees they use, if they breed or not, and if they have disease or not.  “It’s quite a challenging study, as we want steep terrain – we don’t want to just monitor the easy koalas who sit on the ridgeline near the fire trails, we want to see movement data where they have access to big gullies. Which means it might take us a full day to track one koala!”

The results of the study will have the potential to inform koala land management, both in national parks and on private land, and will be particularly useful in habitat restoration – determining what sort of trees to plant to encourage koala populations.

“You need to know which tree species are important in different areas, because koalas are fussy – there’s no point planting trees that are the wrong sort in the wrong habitat. The idea is to help future-proof habitat restoration, so we’re planting the right species, in the right places, that are going to help koalas longer term.”

Meanwhile, both Blue Mountains locals and visitors to the area are encouraged to report any koala sightings, particularly in the lower Mountains where very few have been seen since the fires. Science for Wildlife also welcomes donations to assist in this new study, to help track the elusive koalas that use this rugged terrain.

See scienceforwildlife.org

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