Could microbes help solve the koala conundrum? | Global Ideas | DW | 20.03.2015
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Could microbes help solve the koala conundrum?

Though koalas are listed as vulnerable, there are too many in some spots. Their hearty appetite for eucalyptus not only diminishes tree stocks, but also harms koala health. Guts could hold the answer.

Photo: A koala sitting in a eucalyptus tree

Looking at this fluffy, relaxed koala it seems impossible to think the eucalyptus fanatics could do any harm.

It’s a conundrum. Although, koalas are listed as vulnerable, populations are thriving in some areas and their huge appetite is challenging the environment - eucalyptus trees cannot grow new leaves quickly enough to keep up with the ravenous marsupial.

While the trees initially try to meet "demand" by producing even more leaves, the freshly grown ones contain higher concentrations of toxic substances that also harm the koalas' stomach. Over the long term, the trees can't sustain the overproduction of new leaves and eventually die.

Culling and euthanasia have been used as the main approaches to tackling the problem so far, leading to huge protests by environmentalists. Another approach - relocation to areas less densely populated with koalas - hasn't had much success either. Between 40 and 90 percent of animals were found to die within a year of the move.

Scientists are taking a peek inside the animal’s guts for a solution

Photo: Branches and leaves of a eucalyptus tree (Photo: CC BY 2.0: John Tann/flickr)

Koalas are used to the type of eucalyptus in their home region - gut microbes might help to adapt them to other types, enabling them to survive also elsewhere.

Variation in eucalyptus tree species across Australia could be behind the koala deaths, according to scientists, who concluded the animals may not be able to properly digest their main meal after they've been moved.

Researchers from the Australian Conservation Ecology Centre are now investigating the koala's gut microbes - which aid digestion - to see whether it's possible to equip the marsupial with adequate microbes to digest the eucalyptus trees in their new homes.

If the research is successful, the microorganisms may become the world's smallest conservation management helpers, potentially solving the koala dilemma.

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