WATCH: Koalas have started doing something experts didn't expect, and it looks like climate change is the cause

Image: University of Sydney

Climate change may be behind a significant change in behaviour in koalas.

The marsupials, known for getting their moisture needs mostly from gum leaves, have been spotted increasingly drinking open water.

University of Sydney researchers set up video surveillance during winter last year to record koalas at special water drinkers.

The koalas drank in the tree tops and some left the safety of their homes to get to water drinkers on ground during the day when they would normally be asleep.

“This is the first study to document the role of water and the possible benefit of water supplementation for koala populations,” says Dr Valentina Mella, a postdoctoral researcher in the University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Farmer Robert Frend in Gunnedah, NSW, designed water stations for koalas, which he called Blinky Drinkers, to help researchers set up the study which started in April last year.

Gunnedah recorded an increase in its koala population a decade ago after a series of tree planting campaigns. However, its population later fell 25% during a heat wave in 2009.

“Increasing hot and dry conditions will mean more droughts and heat waves affecting the koalas’ habitat,” says Dr Mella.

“It is believed that koalas are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they rely exclusively on trees — not only to sleep on but also for eating, which together comprise of the bulk of their activities.”

Koalas are listed as vulnerable in both national and state legislation because of drastic population declines and local extinctions.

Dr Mella’s research into the role of climate change follows previous studies showing the gum leaves koalas eat could dry out, with koalas rejecting the foliage when leaves have a water content of less than 55% to 65%.

“The scientific literature is filled with statements saying that koalas do not need to drink free water but our results show that koalas could benefit from water supplementation,” says Dr Mella.

“This is a perfect example of how the understanding of animal behaviour can be applied to solve pressing problems.

“We hope to use our findings to create a practical plan to manage Australia’s rural lands for this iconic species.”

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