Nutritional Correlates of Koala Persistence in a Low-Density Population
Eleanor Stalenberg1*, Ian R. Wallis1, Ross B. Cunningham2, Chris Allen3, William J. Foley1
1Division of Evolution, Ecology and Genetics, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia,
2Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia,
3National Parks and Wildlife Service, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Far South Coast, New South Wales, Australia
It is widely postulated that nutritional factors drive bottom-up, resource-based patterns in herbivore ecology and distribution. There is, however, much controversy over the roles of different plant constituents and how these influence individual herbivores and herbivore populations. The density of koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) populations varies widely and many attribute population trends to variation in the nutritional quality of the eucalypt leaves of their diet, but there is little evidence to support this hypothesis. We used a nested design that involved sampling of trees at two spatial scales to investigate how leaf chemistry influences free-living koalas from a low-density population in south east New South Wales, Australia. Using koala faecal pellets as a proxy for koala visitation to trees, we found an interaction between toxins and nutrients in leaves at a small spatial scale, whereby koalas preferred trees with leaves of higher concentrations of available nitrogen but lower concentrations of sideroxylonals (secondary metabolites found exclusively in eucalypts) compared to neighbouring trees of the same species. We argue that taxonomic and phenotypic diversity is likely to be important when foraging in habitats of low nutritional quality in providing diet choice to tradeoff nutrients and toxins and minimise movement costs. Our findings suggest that immediate nutritional concerns are an important priority of folivores in low-quality habitats and imply that nutritional limitations play an important role in constraining folivore populations. We show that, with a careful experimental design, it is possible to make inferences about populations of herbivores that exist at extremely low densities and thus achieve a better understanding about how plant composition influences herbivore ecology and persistence.