They are postcard-perfect sleepyheads who look like they’d win Olympic gold for cuddling, but habitat loss in some parts of Australia has meant some koala populations are teetering on extinction.
So could we save them by keeping them as family pets?
University of Melbourne zoologist Kath Handasyde has been researching the ecology, management and diseases of Australian native mammals for over 35 years. She says, unlike our urban brushtail possums, which have a flexible diet, koalas are fussy eaters and feed on a very limited number of eucalypts.
So what if we plant the right trees in our neighbourhood?
“In some urban areas koala habitats and food sources have become fragmented and isolated, forcing koalas to move between patches, causing many koalas to perish in road accidents or become the victims of dog attacks,” Dr Handasyde says.
“Also the population and habitat dynamics are complex, in southeastern Australia some populations in isolated patches can grow rapidly and literally eat themselves out of house and home, especially if mortality is low.”
Natalie Briscoe, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Botany, says we also need big old trees.
“Koalas cope with extreme heat by hugging big, old, cool tree trunks. Our thermal images show some tree species can be over five degrees cooler than the air. Koalas rest against the cooler trucks and they can save about half the water they would usually need to keep cool on a hot day, this hugely reduces their heat stress,” Dr Briscoe said.
It seems our backyards may not be suitable and sadly these furry friends are not keen on socialising or cuddling up with you to watch TV either.
Dr Jean–Loup Rault, from the University’s Animal Welfare Science Centre, says a study at the Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Koala Conservation Centre found up-close and noisy encounters with humans increased vigilance.
“This possibly increases stress and therefore the energy cost for the koala and that could be a problem because they survive on an extremely low energy diet, even minimising energy expenditure by sleeping 20 hours a day,” Dr Rault says.
The public should also remember koalas are wild animals, with sharp teeth and claws, and can inflict serious injuries, he says.
Hmm, maybe a bilby would be nice.
Banner image: Adrian Duncan/Atduncanphotography.com