NSW Koala Research Plan

There is still a lot to learn about koalas in New South Wales and improving our knowledge is key to informing effective conservation actions. To address knowledge gaps and better protect koalas in the wild, up to $2.8 million has been committed to fund koala focused research.

Setting out research priorities

Under the NSW Koala Strategy (the strategy), we are taking action to conserve koalas. To support this conservation action, we are improving our knowledge of koalas through priority research. This will help us ensure policy development and conservation decisions are based on the best available information.

The NSW Koala Research Plan sets out clear priorities for research on koalas over the next 10 years.

Up to $2.8 million has been committed under the strategy to fund koala research proposals between 2019 and 2022. This funding is part of the $44.7 million that is being delivered through the strategy, that will help stabilise and increase koala numbers in New South Wales.

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A 10-year plan to coordinate research on koalas

Building our knowledge is one of the 4 pillars of the strategy. The strategy sets out the first phase of actions to stabilise koala populations in New South Wales. Improving our knowledge on koala location, numbers, habitat and threats is key to informing how we can protect koala populations.

The NSW Koala Research Plan sets out a targeted and coordinated way for us to increase our knowledge of koalas. It is a 10-year plan that will be regularly reviewed and updated throughout its life.

The NSW Koala Research Plan:

  • Identifies and prioritises key knowledge gaps. A key knowledge gap is one that, as a result of being addressed through research, will likely increase the effectiveness of koala conservation actions and/or their likelihood of implementation.
  • Outlines the process by which research grant applications will be sourced, including assessment criteria.
  • Outlines how progress and outputs of the individual research projects will be monitored and evaluated.
  • Outlines how progress and outputs of the research plan will be monitored, evaluated and revised over the life of the plan.

Koala Research Symposia will be held every 2 years to provide an opportunity for a broad range of stakeholders to review the progress of research initiated under the NSW Koala Research Plan and to have input into any change of research priorities.

Current research funded through the NSW Koala Research Plan

In response to a call for proposals released in early 2019, 38 research projects were submitted. Proposals were evaluated following the process outlined in the NSW Koala Research Plan.

Grants have been awarded to 10 projects, with a total value of $1.93 million. The projects are listed below.

The remaining allocated funds will be spent in future years.

Organisation Project title Lead researcher Funding awarded
Australian Museum Research Institute, Australian Museum Genetic management of threatened koala populations: using exome sequencing to define meaningful conservation goals Matthew Lott $56,490
Endeavour Veterinary Ecology Pty. Ltd. Reviewing koala relocation practices to maximise prospects for successful koala translocation programs Jon Hanger $97,980
NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment Assessing koala occupancy in private native forests of north-east NSW Brad Law $124,356
Science for Wildlife A cross-disciplinary approach to characterising koala population status, landscape and climate refugia across the Blue Mountains region, to inform long-term management Kellie Leigh $281,725
The University of Queensland Maximising outcomes for koalas from private land Jonathan Rhodes $266,696
University of Sydney Impacts and drivers of chlamydial disease in the koala: relationships between the host, pathogen and environment Damien Higgins $113,080
University of Sydney Vaccination against chlamydiosis: An effective disease management tool in wild populations? Mark Krockenberger $363,208
University of the Sunshine Coast Testing a combination vaccine to protect koalas against the dual threats of chlamydia and koala retrovirus Bonnie Quigley and Peter Timms $150,000
University of Technology Sydney New and improved chlamydial treatment to reduce disease burden Wilhelmina Huston $70,000
Western Sydney University Understanding and mapping how thermal and dietary constraints combine to restrict koala habitat and determine refugia Ben Moore $409,800

Genetic management of threatened koala populations: using exome sequencing to define meaningful conservation goals

Australian Museum Research Institute

Koalas respond to changes in their environment through changes in their physiology and behaviour or by moving into different areas of suitable habitat. As groups of koalas move apart and adapt to new environments, their genetic makeup gradually changes in response. Understanding how environmental change has shaped the genetic diversity of koala populations is essential for predicting how they will adapt to accelerating, human-driven environmental challenges - and we now have the advanced technologies and tools to do so.

This project will characterise the genetic diversity of koalas in New South Wales to better understand the genetic mechanisms of koala adaptation to environmental change. Genetic profiles of koala populations can then be used to improve conservation and management of at-risk populations. By defining koala populations based on their genetic profiles, we can better assess the processes contributing to the fragmentation of koala populations in New South Wales and make better decisions about where we reintroduce, or move, koalas in the future.

Reviewing koala relocation practices to maximise prospects for successful koala translocation programs

Endeavour Veterinary Ecology Pty. Ltd.

Sometimes threatened animals can be moved to new areas for their protection or to assist with the reinstatement of dwindling populations. Translocation and relocation of koalas require careful consideration of many factors, from evaluating habitat quality, availability and security to assessing genetic differences and possible disease transmission between existing and introduced populations.

This project will consolidate our shared knowledge of why and when koalas should be moved by reviewing published research, consulting current researchers and compiling guidelines and protocols in use. This review will investigate the effectiveness and challenges associated with koala relocation and translocation, as well as inform the design of future translocation trials and site selection. Better design of trials prevents duplication of previous research, and ensures projects address knowledge gaps to increase prospects for successful koala translocation programs.

Assessing koala occupancy in private native forests of north-east NSW

NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

In north-east NSW, private native forests support extensive koala habitat and are likely home to many koalas, but few formal surveys have been conducted in these forests and it is unclear how management of this significant component of koala habitat influences koala occupancy.

This project will survey private native forests on the north coast of New South Wales using acoustic sensors with the data used to model koala occupancy. In doing so, the influences of private native forest management practices – now governed by the PNF Code of Practice for Northern NSW – on koala populations can be assessed. This study will complement recent surveys in publicly-managed forests.

A cross-disciplinary approach to characterising koala population status, landscape use and climate refugia across the Blue Mountains region, to inform long-term management

Science for Wildlife

The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA) provides a diverse range of habitats for koalas and supports the most genetically diverse koala population in Australia. This area will become an increasingly important area for koalas, serving as a refuge for koalas as other areas to the west in NSW become hotter and dryer, and whilst development pressures persist to the east of the protected area. But little is known about the distribution and diversity of koala populations, their habitat preferences or the prevalence of disease in this area which spans a million hectares of national park and wilderness.

In this study, a new low-cost genomic profiling tool will be developed to map regional genetic diversity of koalas in unsurveyed areas of the GBMWHA. This low-cost tool will then be available to researchers Australia-wide. Koala populations in the GBMWHA area will also be monitored to assess disease prevalence and characterise their habitat preferences under different environmental conditions to evaluate which habitats are most likely to be important for them under a changing climate. This knowledge can then inform best practice for the management of diverse koala populations and koala habitat across public and private land. The project will ensure that work to restore habitat and help koalas adapt is done in the places most likely to support koalas in the long-term.

Maximising outcomes for koalas on private land

The University of Queensland

Most koalas in New South Wales occur on private land and therefore private land conservation is critical to protecting koalas and their habitat in New South Wales. Yet few resources are available to inform decisions about how best to invest in private land conservation that will protect koala populations.

This project will develop new tools and guidance for private land conservation and engagement with landholders. Combining ecological and economic analyses, this project will identify how and where the benefits for koalas can be maximised per dollar spent through private land conservation investments. The impacts of projected climate change on koala habitats will be considered and appropriate strategies designed to future-proof investments. The project will also inform broader policy decisions and conservation.

Impacts and drivers of chlamydial disease in the koala: relationships between the host, pathogen and environment

University of Sydney

Understanding the susceptibility of koalas to chlamydia requires a clearer picture of the complex factors which interact to drive disease. So far, studies of the impact of chlamydia on koala populations have focused on isolated factors involved. This holistic study will take a whole-system approach to look at factors associated with chlamydia – in koala populations, in the environment and the disease pathogen itself – to understand how they interact to cause disease.

The Liverpool Plains, Southern Highlands and Port Stephens koala populations present an ideal scenario to investigate the drivers and impact of chlamydiosis: existing data indicates that chlamydial infection and disease outcomes differ across various patches of these populations. This detailed longitudinal study will characterise the susceptibility of koalas to chlamydia infection across diverse geographical areas, helping to identify risk factors of koala chlamydial disease, assess associated impacts and predict resilience and recovery.

Vaccination against chlamydiosis: An effective disease management tool in wild populations?

University of Sydney

Until 2008, north-west NSW had the only growing population of koalas in the State and had no recorded chlamydiosis-related koala deaths. Since then, we have documented at least 2 introductions of chlamydiosis into this population of koalas and about 65% of the koalas in this region are affected by the disease. This occurred at the same time as a 25% decline in the koala population of that region, a result of compounding pressures of habitat loss and fragmentation and extreme weather events.

This project will roll out the first field-based trial of a vaccine against chlamydiosis, seeking evidence of efficacy over a prolonged period (3 years). The results of this trial will provide evidence to assess whether a chlamydiosis vaccination may be a viable part of wild koala population management strategies.

Testing a combination vaccine to protect koalas against the dual threats of chlamydia and koala retrovirus

University of the Sunshine Coast

Chlamydia is the most common disease seen in koalas, and can lead to blindness, infertility and death. Koalas in New South Wales and Queensland are also infected with a virus known as koala retrovirus. Vaccines for chlamydia and koala retrovirus have been tested separately and shown to be safe for koalas but, to be most effective, a successful vaccine needs to target both chlamydia and koala retrovirus at the same time.

This project will test a treatment combining vaccines against chlamydia and koala retrovirus to see whether it effectively protects koalas from the harmful effects of both diseases. The combination vaccine will be tested in wild koala populations to see if it works better than a chlamydia-only vaccine. At the end of this project, if a successful combination vaccine were proven, it could progress to the production stage for use in disease management programs.

New and improved chlamydial treatment to reduce disease burden

University of Technology Sydney

Chlamydia in koalas leads to infertility but treating koalas with antibiotics for chlamydial disease is difficult. Supply of the right antibiotics can be problematic, and more information is needed to better understand the side-effects of standard treatments and the effectiveness of alternative antibiotics.

This project has 2 complementary research streams to identify new antibiotics to treat chlamydia in koalas. The first stream will optimise a new chlamydia-specific antibiotic that is non-toxic and effective against koala chlamydia. The secondary stream will screen a library of existing approved drugs. The efficacy of promising antibiotics will be tested, and the most effective antibiotics identified, ready to progress to clinical trials in affected koalas.

Understanding and mapping how thermal and dietary constraints combine to restrict koala habitat and determine refugia

Western Sydney University

Droughts and heatwaves are recognised as important agents of mortality for koalas and are expected to increase in frequency and severity under climate change. Maintaining an adequate intake of water is essential for koalas to thermoregulate under hot conditions, and koalas famously rely on water in leaves for most of their water intake. We need to better understand how koalas maintain their water intake during extreme conditions, and how their habitat changes under those conditions, so we can better protect populations under future climate change conditions.

First, a field study will monitor wild koalas to better understand how koalas conserve and expend energy, consume food and water and regulate their body temperature under a range of weather conditions to determine their physiological thresholds and nutritional requirements. Our approach recognises that hot temperatures and plant toxins can interact to limit koalas' feeding. Next, remote sensing will be used to measure and map how leaf moisture varies across New South Wales and across different climates and weather conditions. Then, current and potential koala habitats will be mapped across New South Wales under simulated weather scenarios under climate change, reflecting how heat affects koalas, their ability to maintain hydration and their habitats.