Saving the Koala

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!

On March 1st, we meet with Jennifer Tobey who works in Population Sustainability at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Throughout our time with her, she took us through her job working with koalas at the Zoo, as well as her current and past work with them in the wild. We were able to use some of the technology Ms. Tobey uses when she is out in the field as well as make observations about the koalas at the Zoo! Most importantly, however, we learned how much Ms. Tobey’s job is involved with koalas, as well as, what we can do to help wild koalas.  

First, Ms. Tobey gave us a background of the Zoo’s conservation efforts and its origins. She explained how the Institute for Conservation Research was created in order to be a conservation research facility, while the Safari Park served as a breeding facility for these animals. Today, there are about 150 researchers at the Institute for Conservation Research, making it one of the largest research facility for conservation in the world! Not all of the researchers work indoors, however, a large portion work in the field worldwide. They do this especially to observe the animals living conditions and natural behaviors so they can mimic these natural habitats at the Zoo or Safari Park so the animals feel the most at home. This type of research is what Ms. Tobey does and studies with wild koalas as a means to further koala conservation.

Research studies pertaining to koala reproduction has been something that has gone on for a very long time. This then leaves a lot of historical data, kept in Red Books, to help present and future scientists find ways to increase the chance of successful koala breeding in zoos. Koala breeding behaviors are dependent on so many factors. Through these Red Books, Ms. Tobey informed us of how they found that when the keepers and scientists paired up koalas to mate that it wouldn’t always work. It was sort of a hit and miss situation, and they wanted to decrease the number of unsuccessful breeding pairings. With this in mind, Ms. Tobey and other scientists looked back at the Red Books to find what kinds of conditions that made females want to breed with male koalas.

At first, they found that there is actually a magic number of how many times a certain female would mate with a male. The Red Book showed that on average, if a female was susceptible to breeding with a certain male and it was successful, the female would let the male breed with her for another four times. However, after the fourth time, she would often reject him. This data allowed researchers to decrease the number of unsuccessful breeding pairings as they limited the times a female and a male would pair up.

Not only did they use the Red Book to find answers to the problem, but they also went to the wild to study males and females and how their natural habitats influence their reproductive habits. Upon studying koalas on St. Bees Island, Ms. Tobey made an observation on how the males bellows vocalization influenced reproductive behaviors. More specifically, she wanted to know the frequency and duration of bellows in the wild. Over the a span of a year, she found on average that males made more calls during the spring time, however the calls were longer in the fall. Ms. Tobey told us that the males make shorter calls during the spring, so that the females could differentiate between the different males and ambient noises. Ms. Tobey also informed us how they study a male koala’s scent gland, and how they need to eat more in order for the smell to be stronger to attract the females. With this knowledge, keepers and scientists are able track when a male should breed as the females would be more receptive to their scent.

Today, Ms. Tobey and other scientists are able to study wild koalas using radio collars. By using radio telemetry, researchers found that females tend to breed with males outside of their own territories. Through this observation, researchers were able to determine that female koalas at the Zoo may be more likely to breed outside of their own enclosures.

Throughout Ms. Tobey’s presentation, it became more and more apparent just how connect her work is with koala conservation. Additionally, she informed us of ways we can help koalas in our day-to-day lives. We learned that things like paper towels and other paper products come from eucalyptus trees, so we need to use less of these products and use things like cloth in substitute of paper towels. Throughout our time with Ms. Tobey, we learned so much about  population sustainability and how this discipline aids global conservation efforts

Lauren, Conservation Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2018

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