Koalas Get High-tech Support

Geoff and Brian examine a koala held by Dr. FitzGibbon from the University of Queensland.

Hi, again, this time from St. Bees Island, off the eastern coast of Australia, where the weather is fantastic and the koalas are in great health! (Read post Koalas and Cyclone Ului). For the last week, the San Diego Zoo’s Geoff Pye, veterinarian, and Brian Opitz, veterinary technician, traveled across the globe to join me on humble St. Bees Island, bringing some expensive equipment and extensive knowledge with them.

Brian and Geoff are undertaking a comparison of health between the San Diego Zoo’s koalas and those we are studying on St. Bees Island. As trained veterinarians, they have a lot to offer the program and were able to inspect all the koalas we caught and assess their health. In addition, they are taking back some valuable samples that we hope will help identify how differences in environmental factors might affect the health of koalas in the wild as well as in managed care.

In addition to the koalas we already have in the program, which we identify by their small numbered ear tags, we found plenty of new koalas that had moved onto the knoll (our main site) over the last few months. We caught 20 koalas for this particular project during the week (14 adult females, 1 juvenile male, and 5 adult males), and only 8 were koalas that we had caught in the past. Of the 14 females, 8 still had young joeys with them, but we are nearing the peak of the breeding season and expect that these large joeys will soon leave and their mothers will be raising a new group of pouch young in the next few months.

All the koalas on St. Bees Island were in good condition, even some of the very old females that are still rearing young. We found Natasha, a koala that has been in the project for as long as Elizabeth (since 1999), and Dr. Pye commented on how well these koalas look, even though they don’t get things quite as good as do the koalas back in San Diego.

Each koala we examined was put under anesthesia, making it very easy to safely conduct health exams and collect samples painlessly and without distress to the animal. These procedures are very short but certainly allow us to collect a lot of important data that we hope to use both to understand what factors help make the koalas at St. Bees so healthy and to enhance captive management of these fascinating animals.

I will miss the input from the San Diego Zoo team when they return home next week, but it is only a few weeks until I will be seeing more friendly faces from the Zoo down here at our great study site.

Bill Ellis is the Clark Endowed Postdoctoral Researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Urban Koala Update.

5 Responses to Koalas Get High-tech Support

  1. Thanks, Bill. Glad to hear these Koalas are doing very well. Glad you also had access to expert veterinary care from SDZ to help with you health assessments.

  2. It is really great to hear that animals are thriving somewhere in the wild since viable habitat keeps shrinking for many species. We wish you the best in finding a way to help other koalas fair better. Thank you for working to help these super charming little animals.

  3. I’m glad to hear the koalas on St. Bees Island and at SDZ are doing well. It’s great to be able to see the koalas up close at SDZ (unlike many years ago when you could barely see them hiding in the treetops), but I’ve wondered whether they are stressed by being so close to humans.

  4. Sorry for the off-topic post, but has the San Diego Zoo considered the possibility of adding Tasmanian devils to the outback exhibit?

    It seems that this species is is in great danger of being extinct, possibly in the next couple of decades, from Tasmanian devil facial cancer. Since the cancer is spread by bites to the face by battling tazzies, efforts are under way to maintain tazzie habitats separate from the wild populations. In the event that they do become decimated by the disease, I would hope that the unaffected populations might still be in existence.

    Also, perhaps Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. might be able to help out with a sponsorship?

    San Diego Zoo responds: We have expressed an interest in bringing Tasmanian devils back into our collection and have several Tasmanian and Australian contacts who may be of assistance. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to acquire specimens because it is still exceeding hard to identify those devils that are, without doubt, not affected by the communicable cancer that is threatening the species. Our colleagues in Tasmania have established what they consider “clean” colonies and are protecting them as closely as they can. Until there are sufficient numbers of proven unaffected animals that can form a colony outside of the cancer-affected area, we must exercise patience. It would be a devastating action to import a Tasmanian devil that may carry the disease.

  5. #3 Marilyn
    Thank you so much for your response to Dr. Ellis’ koala blog. Dr. Ellis is doing such wonderful work on St. Bee’s. Being a San Diego native, I also remember coming to the Zoo when our koalas lived high in the eucalyputus trees and were often difficult to spot. The changes to how the koalas were exhibited occurred in the mid 1970s and actually were created to improve koala husbandry needs and modeled after our Australian experts. Since that time we have had over 100 joeys born, which proves that the change in husbandry truly helped the animals!

    Thank you for the wonderful question!