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Genetic sequencing answers critical koala questions

Friday, 14 September 2018

Source: James Cook University

New genetic research has found populations of koalas with the genetic diversity that could be the key to protecting the vulnerable species from extinction.

Koala numbers are declining in many areas across Australia. In the most comprehensive study to date, James Cook University researchers have studied the genome of the koala across the species range, which provides vital information about how Australia’s koala populations are connected.

Previous research has shown that many marsupials have low genetic diversity – often as a result of population declines due to human interference or disease. When populations have low genetic diversity, they become more vulnerable to extinction. This study has highlighted several key populations which appear to hold historic diversity from prior to European settlement and hunting in the early 20th Century. 

JCU’s Professor Kyall Zenger said the finding was very exciting, because koala numbers have been declining in many areas, and are listed as a vulnerable species.

“To effectively manage koalas across Australia and in captivity we must understand how genetically diverse these populations are – how ‘fit’ they are,” he said.

Shannon Kjeldsen, a PhD student working on the project at JCU, said her research also showed that two genetic “groups” appear to be present across Australia, but populations are still connected at a local scale.

“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,” Ms Kjeldsen said.

The team from JCU is working alongside Professor Herman Raadsma from Sydney University, Dr Kellie Leigh from Science for Wildlife, and Ms Jennifer Tobey from the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research.

Paper available online:  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-018-0144-4

Images available on DropBox (link here).

Contact:

Shannon Kjeldsen

0401 781 505

Professor Kyall Zenger

0415 920 052