Genetic study challanges koala perceptions

As part of the Cooma Shire’s tablelands koala recovery efforts, this weekend a Koala Rescue & Rehabilitation training course is being held at Bredbo. Speaking on ABC radio, organizer James Fitzgerald suggested koalas on the tablelands are genetically distinct from coastal and Victorian koalas.

I contacted James, and ascertained that he has sent genetic material to Sydney University, although the results have not been made available. After the sighting of a koala with joey, back in Novemeber 2012, and at its request, fresh pellets were sent to the OE&H on the understanding that there were going to Sydney University for analysis. At the time I asked what the purpose of the analysis was, but there was no response.

Perhaps explaining the OE&H’s reluctance, researchers at Sydney Uni have recently released a paper titled ‘MHC class II diversity of koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) populations across their range’. Interestingly, the genetic material used in the study was from archived samples, taken during other studies, from koala populations (n=12) in the large northern and southern ellipses in the map below. In between the large ellipses are the areas occupied by the local coastal and tablelands koalas.

koala genetic study

Previous studies have focused on ‘neutral genes’, and these identified the broad southern and northern populations. However, the paper indicates MHC class 11 genes play an important role immunity and adaption to different environments. Using these genes, and dispute some additional diversity, they found South Gippsland koalas, are not genetically different from other Victorian koalas.

While more detail is required, it seems possible that the tablelands and coastal koalas may be more closely related than previously suggested. Either way, the authors indicate “Koalas with low genetic diversity could become potential reservoirs for emerging pathogens and therefore a biosecurity risk to livestock and human populations as a result of increased habitat overlap from anthropogenic or environmental changes”

This suggestion seems to provide another reasonable argument against the NSW government’s proposed anthropogenic environmental changes.

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