Koala numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate in the wild due to habitat loss and disease, with estimates at less than 100,000 remaining in their native Australia.
However, scientists working with a group of koalas at Longleat have discovered vital genetic clues which may help to secure the long-term survival of the iconic Australian marsupial.
Researchers believe they have identified a retrovirus present in the southern koala population which may help to protect against kidney disease, cancers and a form of HIV, which both northern and southern koalas suffer from. Tragically one of Longleat’s southern koalas, a female called Wilpena, died as a result of the kidney disease known as oxalate nephrosis.
“In the case of koalas, it’s hard to get information on disease, health and reproduction when you have to catch animals that are up 50 metre tall trees as they are in the wild,” said Dr Tarlinton, Associate Professor of Veterinary Virology, who is leading the research.
“Much of our work can’t be done without animals held in zoological collections and, while Wilpena’s death was extremely sad, it does look as though the genetic information she has provided us with could provide vital clues to help save the population in the wild.”
“Koalas only live in Australia and only eat eucalyptus leaves so the maintenance of natural habitat and disease resistance are vital to the future of this most popular of species,” she added.
Dr Tarlington believes they have worked out the genetic mutation that caused the kidney disease which killed Wilpena and that this has the potential to be a genuine scientific breakthrough.
The koala population’s genetic problems began following mass culls in the 19th and 20th centuries where an estimated eight million koalas were killed. In 1890 conservationists rescued less than 20 animals and relocated them to islands in southern Victoria. Most of today’s animals descend from this tiny population, which is believed to have carried the genetic mutation.