How much can a koala bear?

They’re cute, they look cuddly and they are certainly not a bear. The koala – incorrectly referred to as a koala bear by some – is one of Australia’s iconic native animals, but the species has had their fair share of problems in recent times due to urbanisation.

CQUniversity expert in koalas, Dr Alistair Melzer, heads up a community-funded research program, Koala Research CQ, which is based at CQUniversity. Alistair is an adjunct research fellow at CQUni and has studied koalas at the University for more than 20 years. His research also encompasses other aspects of conservation biology including the management of environmental weeds in national parks and invertebrate assemblages in grazing landscapes.

The following excerpt has been taken from our recent Greatvine podcast with Alistair.

Dr Alistair Melzer alongside a koala from St Bee Island.

Studying koala’s must be a pretty cool job. Was that a childhood dream of yours? How did that come about?

I got into koala research through a financial opportunity really. When I first graduated from the University of Queensland, I was working on the Great Barrier Reef as a research diver looking at crown of thorns starfish. But, when funding dried up, I was left looking for a research opportunity and I’d been doing some volunteer work with the Australian Koala Foundation, in fact, I was involved in the establishment of the Australian Koala Foundation back when, in the 1980s and they offered me  a small scholarship to do an honours project on koalas. They followed that up with a PhD scholarship to undertake a PhD study on koalas. And at that point, I looked around for somewhere interesting to do that and so I moved up to Central Queensland and started working at Springsure in my postgraduate studies.

Is your Koala research mainly in Central Queensland, or does it stretch beyond the region?

Over the years, we’ve undertaken projects as far south as the Otway Ranges, and that was in collaboration with Deacon University and with the support of Earthwatch Australia. Then as far north and west as Hughenden, and everywhere in between. But the majority of our focus has been in the greater Central Queensland area. So I’ve got a lot of background in the regions, as opposed to southeast Queensland.

Is that because there’s more problems with the koala populations in the region here rather than down south?

No, it’s because they were being ignored. This is the classic, region versus the centre issue. A lot of researchers have to look at the efficiency where they can do their research. So most of it was occurring in southeast Queensland at that time, or in southern states, and again, closer to urban centres. Whereas, once you moved really out of greater southeast Queensland, very little was going on. They had probably been only one researcher working in this area on koalas and that was Dr Greg Gordan who was working for the state government at the time. So I looked for the opportunity, because a PhD is really about looking at new things and developing new concepts. So I came up here, and also it was nice to be out of the city. I’d been in the city too long and I’m still here.

Koala research volunteer Shirley Hopkins with Dr Alistair Melzer.

So what are the biggest problems facing Koala populations in Australia?

Koalas extend over a very large part of this Australian continent from far north Queensland to southern mainland, eastern Australia. So the issues that are driving the species vary from one end of the continent to the other, but they fall largely into a few areas. First of all,  the effect of land clearing in the regions, more historical now, but the impact of that still remains. The impact of industry and its development, particularly in relation to mining and mining infrastructure. And some of that is still going on, with the intensification of roads and rail and pipelines, which result in direct koala mortality or disruption to populations, but also urban expansion – the cities becoming super cities and the great southeast is becoming a single urban complex. And similarly in New South Wales and in Victoria.

“The predictions of the climate change modelling are really becoming apparent throughout Australia…”

But overriding all that, of course, is climate effects. The predictions of the climate change modelling are really becoming apparent throughout Australia, but particularly so in the dry parts in New South Wales and Queensland where extreme heat waves, extended droughts, long consecutive periods of time without rainfall and very high temperatures associated with fire. That sort of thing resulted in koala populations dying out in a lot of areas and their distribution retreating towards the east and somewhat towards the south as well.

But also, there’s still the legacy of historical land use practices. Areas that were cleared for agriculture are still cleared for agriculture. The opportunities for koalas to recover from these things is quite limited.

Koalas are increasingly being limited to what we call drought refugia or temperature refugia or in a case of southeast Queensland to relic patches of landscape where they may survive for some time with all the threatening processes around the expansion of the footprint of greater Brisbane.

For the full interview, listen to the podcast on your favourite podcast platform.

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