Koala bears would stand a better chance in their fight against extinction if water fountains were installed for them at various spots around the outback.
Australian researchers found they do not get enough water from their current diet of just plant leaves as climate change is drying the leaves out.
It was previously thought they only got hydration from leaves but a revolutionary new study has found they are actually able, and willing, to drink from standing water.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, offers hope in the fight to conserve the threatened species, with researchers finding that koalas will regularly use artificial water stations – particularly during hot and dry periods.
Study leader Dr Valentina Mella, of the University of Sydney in Australia, said: ‘Drinking stations could help koalas during heat and drought events and might help mitigate the effects of climate change.’
Dr Mella explained that drinking stations could prove a useful way to support other leaf eating species.
Gliders and possums in Australia would likely benefit and it could also help wildlife on other continents, such as sloths, lemurs and some monkeys.
Koala populations along Australia’s east coast have been declining due to a culmination of various factors.
Habitat loss from deforestation, diseases such as chlamydia, attacks from predators, fire and road collisions are all contributing to their decline.
The combined koala populations in Queensland and New South Wales declined from 326,400 in 1990 to just 188,000 in 2010 – a drop of 42 per cent, according to the Australian Department of Environment.
But Dr Mella warned that koalas are also ‘particularly vulnerable’ to the effects of climate change, suffering heat stress, and because the trees they rely on are affected by temperature and rainfall change.
She said koalas can’t simply eat more leaves to compensate for reduced water content in their favourite food because they are limited by how much they can devour by leaf toxins.
Dr Mella said: ‘It is predicted that increased CO2 emissions will increase the level of phenolics and tannins in eucalyptus leaves.
‘This means koalas will need alternative strategies to find water – and that’s where we can help with drinking stations.’
Dr Mella has been conducting field work in Gunnedah in New South Wales (NSW) where, in 2009, a heatwave killed an estimated one-in-four of the local koala population.
She said: ‘We weren’t sure if the water stations could be used to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events.
‘But our results clearly show koalas will regularly use these stations to supplement their water needs.’
During the first 12 months of the study, Dr Mella and her team recorded 605 visits to 10 pairs of water stations, with 401 of these visits resulting in koalas drinking.
They found that the total number of visits and total time drinking doubled during summer compared to other seasons.
Dr Mella said: ‘Frequent access to water may be fundamental for koalas to assist thermoregulation when temperatures are high.’
Initial findings about koalas’ drinking habits were announced in 2017 with videos that showed widespread use of water by the iconic mammals, particularly during drier periods.
The release of these findings prompted a successful fundraising campaign at the University to support further research into koala conservation.
Dr Mella’s study has influenced the direction of state and national koala research, with water supplementation adopted by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
The results also prompted Campbelltown council in Adelaide to install drinking stations for koalas.
Dr Mellah said: ‘We need to monitor how effective these are – as the stations can also attract feral animals and predators.
‘Fortunately, we haven’t seen any deaths from predators near the drinking stations in Gunnedah.’
The research team has now developed drinking stations that are inaccessible to ground-based predators.
Dr Mella added: ‘Our next steps will be to see if disease, such as chlamydia, influences koala drinking behaviour.
‘And we will also monitor individual koalas to examine these drinking behaviours over a longer time period.’
Categories: Mailonline Science
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