31 Jan 2022


Scientists in Sydney are hard at work creating a “Koala Map”. No, we’re not talking about an interactive website with the home addresses of all your koala friends as well as a rough indication of what time you’ll need to leave your house if you want to visit one, but something much, much more… scientific.

But, just because it’s scientific doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly cute, with the discovery of nine adorable koala joeys all part of a days work.

Help protect koalas and the places they call home.

Led by the University of Sydney, the Koala Genome Program is creating a genomic map for koalas to better understand the genetic diversity of our small furry grey friends. This same map will help identify which populations have important genetic variants that may help them and, in turn, the entire species survive in the future.

So far, the program has taken genetic information from over 400 koalas, which they’ll use to identify which populations of koalas are, for example, more disease resilient, or more able to adapt to changing environments. This is particularly important when it comes to the effects of climate change.

The hope is that this genomic map will help to strengthen koala resilience by prioritising the protection of populations with essential genetic diversity.

Dr Carolyn Hogg of the University of Sydney says, “The value of having a genome map of koala genetic diversity across its range is important to both the scientific community and all organisations working to save koalas.” She’s been thankful for the support she’s received so far. “Since our program started, I’ve been encouraged and impressed by the way koala experts everywhere have reached out to see how they could help.”

Dr Carloyn Hogg from University of Sydney tests koala DNA
Dr Carloyn Hogg from University of Sydney tests koala DNA © Louise Cooper / University of Sydney

One of those koala experts eager to help was Dr Kita Ashman, WWF-Australia’s Threatened Species and Climate Adaptation Ecologist. Last year, Dr Ashman headed out into the field in Gelantipy, East Gippsland, Victoria, to collect DNA samples to help the koala cartographers create their maps and close the critical gap in samples from the East Gippsland region.

On her expedition, Dr Ashman briefly captured 20 koalas, 14 of which were females, and astoundingly, nine were carrying joeys. “It’s hard to imagine anything cuter than nine koala joeys,” she said. Though Dr Ashman, unlike us, doesn’t have to imagine them. She added, “But there was an important scientific reason behind why we were rounding up their parents. It’s possible they could be some of Victoria’s most important koalas.”

At this point, you might be wondering, why are the East Gippsland koalas so important? Or you’re still thinking about those nine adorable koala joeys all fresh to the world, wondering why they make those cute squeaking noises that sound like someone’s squeezing a rubber duckie… well, they make that “yip” noise whenever they’re separated from their mum, so she can find them.

Dr Kita Ashman -Threatened Species and Climate Adaptation Ecologist, WWF-Australia just after releasing a koala mother with joey
Dr Kita Ashman -Threatened Species and Climate Adaptation Ecologist, WWF-Australia just after releasing a koala mother with joey © Desley Whisson

If you’re wondering about the importance of East Gippsland koalas, it’s because last century, hunting pushed southern koala populations to the brink of extinction. When these populations crashed, individuals were stashed on offshore islands where they were able to breed up before being put back onto the mainland. As a result, many of Victoria and South Australia’s koala populations were repopulated from these marooned animals. But some of these island populations were founded by as few as 18 individuals, which created low genetic diversity when these animals were put back onto the mainland.

However, the koalas from South Gippsland survived the hunting era and still retain the diverse genes of Victoria’s original koalas, which means that Dr Ashman’s collections could potentially be of particular importance. “Soon we’ll know if the East Gippsland koalas can be traced back to offshore predecessors or if they’re another remnant population, a pocket of high genetic diversity. That’s like finding a genetic pot of gold,” said Dr Ashman.

Kita’s involvement in the project is a part of WWF’s ambitious plan to Regenerate Australia through the Koalas Forever program, which aims to double koala numbers on the east coast of Australia by 2050, and in doing so help hundreds of other species too.

It’s no small task creating a koala map, and this is a particularly big one. Previous wildlife genome maps have only been able to sequence the genetic material five to seven times per sample. However, Sydney University’s genome map will sequence each genome between 30 to 60 times! The only other projects this thorough are human genome studies – so with all their data and scientific minds on the case, this project has the potential to really make a difference when it comes to making sure our iconic koala doesn’t go the way of the Tasmanian tiger or desert bandicoot.

But the genome map and Regenerate Australia are only part of the puzzle. Koalas need all of our support to ensure they’re still in our trees for many years to come. To help give them a future, please sign our ‘Protect Biodiversity’ petition asking our Australian Federal Government to strengthen our commitments to protecting Australia’s biodiversity by 2030. The nine East Gippsland joeys – and many, many more - are counting on you!