SYDNEY – A new study published on Thursday in Australia said it has found pockets of genetically-diverse koalas that could help protect the species from extinction.
Previous studies pointed out that many koalas have low genetic diversity as a result of the decline in its population caused by human interference or diseases.
The new research, however, analyzed the koala genome and discovered several pockets of koalas holding genetic diversity that dates back to before the European settlement in the early 19th Century, when koalas were extensively hunted for their skins.
“To effectively manage koalas across Australia and in captivity we must understand how genetically diverse these populations are, how ‘fit’ they are,” Kyall Zenger of James Cook University (JCU) said in a statement.
The research, published in the scientific journal Heredity, indicated that these marsupials, despite their specific dietary requirements, live across a vast range of environments, including subalpine forests in the southeastern state of Victoria and tropical forests in the northeastern state of Queensland.
However, their distribution is not continuous in this territorial range and some populations live in places that are not their common habitats but where they were relocated to.
“We know that it would be unwise to move koalas between these regions because they live in different climates and have adapted to different environments, but this is the first study to give an indication of the geographic scale that these animals should be managed at,” Shannon Kjeldsen from JCU said.
Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus), which in the aboriginal language mean “no drink” – in reference to the fact that it gets 90 percent of its hydration from eucalyptus leaves -, numbers are declining in many areas and they are considered a vulnerable species in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Koalas are a very delicate animal and are especially sensitive to any environmental change. It spends up to 20 hours a day sleeping or resting, and uses the remaining four hours to feed on eucalyptus.