13 April 2022, Sydney: In a world first, a group of scientists led by Australian Museum (AM) geneticist Dr Matthew Lott have revealed the most comprehensive, in-depth and robust assessment of the genetic diversity across the modern distribution of koalas. Published today in Molecular Ecology, the research also provides evidence of how the species has responded to past climate change and the critical role museums play in supporting ongoing conservation efforts.
By using recent advances in the fields of genomics and bioinformatics on museum collections, Dr Lott and his team were able to showcase that while the koala is one species, there are five distinct groups or population clusters currently existing across Australia.
Dr Lott said that relatively little is known about how genetic diversity is distributed amongst koala populations across Australia, and even less is understood about the climatic and evolutionary processes that have created these differences.
“In order to answer these questions, we sequenced the protein coding gene regions, or ‘exons,’ of 259 koalas from 92 locations across the species’ geographic range, representing the most comprehensive investigation of koala genetics to date,” Dr Lott said.
“While there are a few studies which have analysed a larger number of samples, our collection sites span nearly the entire modern distribution of the koala. By using museum specimens we’ve also been able to fill in some sampling gaps where it’s literally impossible to find koalas anymore,” Dr Lott explained.
“Our results are robust and wide-reaching, and can be used to help develop better, more evidence-based management paradigms, which will help mitigate koala decline,” Dr Lott added.
Dr Mark Eldridge, AM Principal Research Scientist, Terrestrial Vertebrates, explained that as natural habitat continues to be lost, successful koala conservation is going to depend on maintaining gene flow between increasingly isolated populations.
“The loss of genetic diversity from small, fragmented populations has been shown to increase their risk of extinction due to both inbreeding (mating between close relatives), and a reduced ability to adapt to rapid environmental change,” Dr Eldridge said.
“Therefore, the maintenance of genetic diversity by maintaining large, interconnected natural populations, or its augmentation through artificially assisted gene flow (i.e., wildlife translocations), is critical for conserving threatened koala populations in the face of existing and emerging threats,” Dr Eldridge added.
“There are currently no nationally recognised guidelines for koala translocations. However, the data from this research can be used to guide future translocation efforts, ensuring that established management frameworks don’t artificially restrict gene flow,” Dr Eldridge said.
Mammalogist Professor Kristofer Helgen, AM Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, who also worked on the ground-breaking Australian Museum-led Koala Genome Project in 2018, said that across the globe, koalas are an instantly recognised and much-loved symbol of Australia. They occur nowhere else on the planet and the once thriving species is in serious decline due to habitat loss, human encroachment, climate change, and disease.
“Our rapidly changing climate - extreme fires and floods - has had a catastrophic impact on koalas, specifically what we know are the most genetically diverse populations in New South Wales and Queensland. These particular populations were recently upgraded from vulnerable to endangered under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), so it is imperative to align the conservation of genetic diversity with the protection of core koala habitat to increase the resilience of threatened populations,” Professor Helgen said.
“Following on from the Koala Genome Project, by applying a range of DNA-based tools, we can gain a greater understanding of the unique history and habitat requirements of specific threatened populations and develop more targeted management strategies to protect this iconic Australian marsupial,” Professor Helgen added.
Australian Museum Director and CEO, Kim McKay AO, said that koalas are experiencing a perfect storm of threats – habitat loss due to human encroachment and extreme climatic conditions. However, with the scientific knowledge provided by experts such as Dr Matthew Lott, the AM welcomes the new koala strategy and funding recently announced by the NSW Government.
“This new research underscores the need for further koala conservation measures and is in line with the NSW Government’s recent announcement to spend $193.3 million as part of its goal to double koala numbers in NSW by 2050,” McKay said.
An initiative of the AM, Australia’s first museum, this latest research was led by lead author Dr Matthew Lott, with the AM’s Dr Mark Eldridge, Dr Greta Frankham and Dr David Alquezar, along with Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Smithsonian Institution (formerly Director of AMRI), and researchers from the University of Sydney and the Australian National University.
Paper, images, biographies available here:
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The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. The AM’s mission is to ignite wonder, inspire debate and drive change. The AM’s vision is to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The AM commits to transforming the conversation around climate change, the environment and wildlife conservation; to being a strong advocate for First Nations cultures; and to continuing to develop world-leading science, collections, exhibitions and education programs. With more than 21.9 million objects and specimens and the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM is not only a dynamic source of reliable scientific information on some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, but also an important site of cultural exchange and learning.