Failure to Respond to Food Resource Decline Has Catastrophic Consequences for Koalas in a High-Density Population in Southern Australia
Desley A. Whisson1*‡, Victoria Dixon1☯, Megan L. Taylor1☯, Alistair Melzer2☯
1 Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia
2 School of Medical and Applied Sciences, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia
☯ These authors contributed equally to this work.
‡ DAW is senior author on this work.
Understanding the ability of koalas to respond to changes in their environment is critical for conservation of the species and their habitat. We monitored the behavioural response of koalas to declining food resources in manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) woodland at Cape Otway, Victoria, Australia, from September 2011 to November 2013. Over this period, koala population density increased from 10.1 to 18.4 koalas.ha-1. As a result of the high browsing pressure of this population, manna gum canopy condition declined with 71.4% manna gum being completely or highly defoliated in September 2013. Despite declining food resources, radio collared koalas (N=30) exhibited high fidelity to small ranges (0.4–1.2ha). When trees became severely defoliated in September 2013, koalas moved relatively short distances from their former ranges (mean predicted change in range centroid =144m) and remained in areas of 0.9 to 1.0ha. This was despite the high connectivity of most manna gum woodland, and close proximity of the study site (<3km) to the contiguous mixed forest of the Great Otway National Park. Limited movement had catastrophic consequences for koalas with71% (15/21) of radio collared koalas dying from starvation or being euthanased due to their poor condition between September and November 2013.