Caring for Koalas Both Near and Far

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Australia – it may be the smallest continent,  but this country is home to some of the most fascinating and unique animals on Earth. The koala is a perfect example. Koalas have long been an iconic symbol of Australia, but with human populations encroaching on and destroying wild habitats more and more every day, the future of this species is under threat. Thankfully, though, the koala has found a great ally in San Diego Zoo Global. Through research both here in San Diego and in Australia, the Zoo is learning more about the reclusive life of koalas and how we can better protect and care for them both at the Zoo and in the wild. Though human activities have greatly harmed koala populations, San Diego Zoo Global is helping to rewrite that story so that the Earth will never lose the strange, wonderful creature that is the koala.

Can you spot the koala? It may take a minute! Koalas spend the vast majority of their lives in leafy eucalyptus trees, where even researchers can have a difficult time figuring out where they are hiding. For koalas, though, a eucalyptus tree is the perfect place to hang out – it provides a bed, home, and 24-hour buffet all in one.

Meet Jennifer Tobey, Population Sustainability Researcher and koala expert extraordinaire. A fifteen-year veteran of her current position, Ms. Tobey and her team of researchers have greatly contributed to the ever-expanding body of knowledge about koalas and their behavior. Through careful observation, record-keeping, and field work in Australia, this team has truly put themselves at the forefront of koala conservation.

It might look like something out of a space-age movie, but this handy device actually helps researchers locate koalas in the wild. Using signals from radio collars, researchers can use radio telemetry to determine a good approximation of a koala’s position in the trees above. While this device can’t pinpoint a koalas position, it can definitely put the researchers close enough to the koala so that a sharp-eyed member of the group can spot it.

A fellow intern learns how to properly use the radio telemetry device. Aiming for the trees, researchers must triangulate where they receive a signal in order to hone in on the koala’s location. It’s definitely an exercise in patience – koalas may not move around that often, but they’re experts at hiding in plain sight.

As mentioned before, radio telemetry and radio collars play a crucial role in helping researchers gather information about koala’s habits and behaviors on St. Bee’s Island. Located about 37 miles off the coast of Australia, St. Bees is made of of rugged land with very few trails through its dense jungle. With this kind of rugged terrain, the use of radio collars is essential. One significant discovery made possible with these collars was the finding that during mating season, female koalas would often trek across the entire island to mate, and then trek back to their home trees immediately after mating to begin preparations for having a joey. Discoveries like this show how much we still have to learn about koalas and what a great help technology can be in creating these discoveries.

You might not guess it just from looking at them, but koalas have quite an impressive set of teeth. In the wild, a koala’s prominent front teeth become worn down with time, eventually wearing down to the point that the animal can no longer eat. At the Zoo, though, regular care guarantees an extended lifespan for their koala residents.

Though cats are often seen as the sleeping champions of the animal kingdom, koalas take the title with ease. The male pictured above will spend 20 to 22 hours of each day sleeping! Why this snooze-filled schedule? For koalas, sleeping is a great way to conserve energy. Their main food source, eucalyptus, is not very nutritious, so koalas have a limited energy supply for each day. During mating season, when koalas must be awake longer than their usual two to four hours, food consumption rises, but koalas still end up losing weight because of how taxing simply being awake is for these animals.

A male koala enjoys some of the day’s last rays of sunshine. Sunlight, and the Vitamin D it provides, is essential for koala health, as discovered by researchers at the San Diego Zoo. Unless extreme weather is occurring, koalas are on exhibit 24 hours a day, Though San Diego and Australia are thousands of miles apart, their climates are remarkably similar, which means that koalas can feel right at home in the sunshine and Santa Ana winds.

At the zoo, male and female koalas are given different living arrangements. While this male and all others have their own separate exhibits to prevent territory disputes, females are grouped into what’s known as “harem housing,” where several individuals share the same living space. Even in the female exhibits, though, each koala mostly keeps to herself. After all, why share a tree when everyone can enjoy their own instead?

In the wild, male koala bellows during mating season are an important clue to their location. In order to pick up these bellows and distinguish them from the other sounds of nature, high-tech recording equipment like the headset and microphone pictured are used. In this activity, James is simulating an animal that Megan, the researcher, is trying to track. Though it could be difficult to pick out the “animal’s” calls among the other sounds of the room, Megan was successful and was able to figure out exactly where her “animal” was.

The work being done by Ms. Jennifer Tobey and her team is truly incredible, but it’s important to remember that we also play a vital role in ensuring a future for koalas. Unfortunately, the eucalyptus trees that provide koalas with food and shelter are a common source of the wood pulp that makes up our notebook paper, books, toilet paper, and much more. The more our demand for paper increases, the more trees and koala habitats are destroyed. However, there are a number of ways that we can help to change this. The most effective way to conserve eucalyptus trees is to use less paper. By conserving what we already have, our society is able to prevent the continuation of resource exploitation. Another way to help out koalas is by buying paper products that have been approved by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). A stamp of approval from the FSC means that the wood pulp used was harvested with sustainable methods. Though these may seem like small ways to help koalas, there is much to gain if we as a society choose to stand together and make conservation a priority in our daily lives. Koalas and so many other species depend on people like us to make a change – will you answer the call?

Allison, Photo Journalist Team
Week  Five, Spring Session 2018


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