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PHOTO: A koala sits in a tree after being tagged and released by researchers near Fernvale, west of Brisbane.
(ABC News: Nic MacBean)
MAP: Fernvale 4306
Perched high in the trees above Somerset is a population of koalas giving scientists hope for the survival of the species in Queensland.
The animals in the area 70 kilometres north-west of Brisbane appear to be thriving – unlike koalas along the Queensland coast which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
University of Queensland researcher Dr Bill Ellis is studying the koala population at Somerset to try and find out what makes it successful.
“It’s a real contrast to what we’ve been seeing in south-east Queensland,” Dr Ellis said.
“That kind of spurs us on to really want to find out what’s going on here.”
He says initial research indicates there are plenty of healthy koalas in the area.
The team encountered 23 animals in just a 6 km stretch of road in one day alone.
“It’s been pretty well documented that koalas in the koala coast and the more urban areas of Brisbane are in a far bit of trouble,” Dr Ellis said.
“You just go over the D’Aguilar Range and there are populations in really quite dramatic decline.”
“So for us to be working with a population that appears to be, at this stage anyway, looking to be resisting that decline – it’s really quite interesting for us.”
PHOTO: UQ koala researcher Sean Fitzgibbon tries to trap a koala in a tree. (ABC News: Nic MacBean)
Over a 12-month period, researchers will work to canvass the health of the koala population across 63,000 hectares of land in Somerset.
Once a koala is spotted, a team member scales the tree to coax the animal down, where it’s quickly bagged at the bottom.
Under the guidance of wildlife veterinarian Dr Amber Gillett, the koala is then anaesthetised while a number of health checks are carried out.
“We do a full physical examination, so feeling all over the animal, listening to its heart and lungs,” Dr Gillett said.
Each koala’s weight and measurements are recorded, and Dr Gillett checks to see whether females are carrying joeys in their pouches.
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“Then we also look at whether there are any obvious signs of disease because koalas get a lot of chlamydiosis in some parts of south-east Queensland,” Dr Gillett said.
Chlamydiosis is a serious and sometimes fatal disease endemic in most koala populations in Australia.
It causes a variety of diseases including blindness, infertility, urinary tract infection and pneumonia.
“That’s why we’re testing these koalas for chlamydia, to see how widespread it is and how many animals are infected,” Dr Ellis said.
Although it’s still very early in the study, researchers say the koalas assessed so far have appeared remarkably healthy.
“We’re seeing quite old females that have got young, so they’re obviously doing really well in the wild here and reproducing exactly the way we want them to,” Dr Gillett said.
“It’s really nice to see koalas that are reaching that mature age, it’s wonderful to see they’ve lived a nice life out here.”
Dr Ellis says part of the research will look at whether the koalas in Somerset may be resisting the progression of chlamydia.
“Whether it’s that the disease is less pathogenic out here, whether there’s some genetic component… we really have no idea at the moment,” he said.
“But certainly from what we’ve been seeing here, it’s an interesting contrast to populations that are in rapid decline not very far away.”
It’s hoped eventually the research findings will identify specific factors, either genetic or lifestyle, which are enabling koalas to thrive in Somerset.
PHOTO: UQ researcher Bill Ellis measures a koala near Fernvale, west of Brisbane.(ABC News: Nic MacBean)
“Finding, identifying and protecting these kinds of populations is probably a key to making sure that we do have koalas in south-east Queensland in the long term,” Dr Ellis said.
He believes information learned from successful koala populations like Somerset could also be used to guide conservation efforts elsewhere in Queensland.
“Because there are a lot of people, a long way into the future, who are hoping they’re going to have koalas in their neighbourhoods,” Dr Ellis said.
“Hopefully it’s populations like this that are going to provide some of those answers.”
The research will continue over a number of years.
Story By Courtney Wilson. Updated Fri 29 Nov 2013, 11:50am AEDT.