Koala Research

Koala populations were already threatened before the current drought tightened its grip on the country. As their habitats dry out and koalas are forced to hunt for water, a world-first research program is urgently looking for solutions.


Koala in a tree


Australia has always been tough on its native animals, throwing heat, floods and droughts at them across millennia. They’ve evolved to cope.


The current drought though is different; the worst in 400 years, according to some measures that factor in duration and how widespread the dry has become.


And yes, this drought is even challenging Australia’s native animals. One sign among many is the unusual behaviour of koalas in Gunnedah, north-eastern New South Wales.


Dr Valentina Mella (PhD (Research) ’14), an animal behaviourist at the University of Sydney, had been working for some time in Gunnedah, a place often called the koala capital of the world, when locals began contacting her.


“I was receiving photos, emails and text messages from locals telling me that they had a koala in the backyard that was drinking from the birdbath,” she remembers.


Ask almost any Australian, and they’ll tell you that koalas don’t drink because they get all the moisture they need from the eucalyptus leaves they eat. This isn’t strictly true. During extended droughts, the leaves actually become drier, forcing koalas to leave their trees and search for water.


Local Gunnedah farmer Robert Frend


Koalas are dangerously dehydrated


Looking more closely, Mella found things were worse than just koalas drinking from bird baths. Heat-stressed and dehydrated koalas were literally dropping from trees, a fact backed up by locals who said they were seeing generally fewer koalas.


This is happening at a time when national koala populations are already endangered. As recently as the early 20th century, koalas numbered in the millions. Today, generous estimates suggest there may be 100,000 left in the wild. Others put the number at around 40,000 and falling - rapidly. 


A terrible state of affairs for a creature we claim to love, that we use as a national symbol, and that has lived happily on this continent for 25 million years.


The koala drinking station


Providing lifesaving access to water


Realising how threatened the Gunnedah koalas are, Mella immediately began working to understand if something could be done to alleviate the effects of climate change on koalas.


One of Mella’s first ideas went straight to the heart of the problem, “I approached a couple of landowners and I said, ‘How about we put out some water, and see what happens?’”


Running with the idea, Gunnedah local, Robert Frend, created a drinking station that could provide water for distressed koalas.


“It’s a fantastic design,” Mella says. “You can put the bowls in trees and they automatically refill. We also have cameras there, so we can see how much time they spend drinking.”


The Gunnedah community has been instrumental to the cause, “They've been a huge help and give such generous support, even allowing me to conduct studies on their properties. This research wouldn’t be possible without them.



Dr Valentina Mella releasing a koala


Paving the way for thirsty koalas


The University of Sydney community is also supporting Mella’s research through its annual giving day, Pave the Way.


This work, and the drinking stations could have national significance as the indiscriminate nature of climate change reaches far beyond Gunnedah to include places where koalas have previously flourished.


The good news is, koalas have quickly taken to the drinking stations while providing data that could lead to more insights to create practical conservation solutions. Mella is thrilled with the progress and the community support that has made it possible, while keeping in mind the enormity of the challenge and how much that still needs to be done.


“Climate change is endangering koalas everywhere,” Mella says. “It's important that we do something about it. Without community support and funding for research, the future doesn’t look very bright for koalas.”


The coming summer is predicted to be hot and dry. Your support of Mella’s work through Pave the Way, will mean more drinking stations can be installed and the people of Gunnedah will see more of their beloved koalas returning to the trees.


Dr Valentina Mella with a koala



How you can make a difference


On 18 September the University community will come together for a 24-hour fundraising challenge called Pave the Way to raise funds for this research and to install more drinking fountains for koalas.


With no administration fees, 100 per cent of your donation goes straight to this project, so every gift counts. The generosity of students, staff, alumni, parents and friends has already made such a huge difference, and with your help today, we can continue to make a real impact.


It’s never too early to give – and even the smallest gifts can go a long way to help us protect an Australian icon.



A koala having a check-up

Double your impact
Thanks to an extraordinary donation, $150,000 of matching funds are available in the lead-up to Pave the Way. Make your gift now and we'll match the value of your donation dollar-for-dollar to the area of your choice. That means your gift will have twice the impact.
$150,000 MATCHED
8.15 - Cadigal Green - Pancake breakfast
Maple syrup? Check. Chocolate? Check. Waking up early never tasted so good... grab yourself a koala pancake and smoothie and start Pave the Way off right.
11.30am - Cadigal Green - Kickin' it for Koalas
Get your Jedenak on and test your kicking speed with Radar Soccer.
11.30am - Cadigal Green - Facepainting
Koalify yourself as an Australian icon with cute face-painting down on the 'green.
11.30am - Cadigal Green - Liquid Goodies from the Queen Street Vintage Van
Thirsty? Get quenching! Follow the crowds for amazing mocktails from the Queen Street Vintage Van including Strawberry Virgin Margaritas, Lime and Mint Mojitos and more. Bottoms up!
12pm - Eastern Avenue - Fluffe fairyfloss
Insta-sensation Fluffe is back with his amazing fairyfloss creations! Lose yourself in some lemonade loveliness, and don't forget to snap your floss #ipavetheway
11.30am - Eastern Avenue - Kombi Keg
Kombucha your little heart out on Eastern Avenue! Flavour sensations include Ginger and Tumeric, Passionfruit and Lavendar, Pineapple and Coconut and more!
11.30am -Eastern Ave - Cool down with Messina Gelato
Guess who's getting a special visit from Sydney's favourite ice-cream legends, Messina Gelato? That's right - YOU ARE. Pick your passion with Coco Koala, Dulce de Leche, and Raspberry and Chocolate sorbets.
12pm - Eastern Avenue - The Great Koality Lunch Extravaganza
Australian icons don't get any better than this! Join us for a free sausage sizzle and salads from 12pm at Eastern Avenue. And to top it all off, with lots of frosting - we've got limited edition koala cupcakes in honour of our much-loved Aussie icon. Gluten free? Vegan? We've got you covered!
All day - Cadigal Green - Meet every koala's hero, Farmer Frend
Farmer Robert Frend is here with his incredible koala drinking station! Robert's working at the front line with researchers to protect the koala population in his home town of Gunnedah. Find out how he's making a difference.
11am - Cadigal Green - Tote Bags
Come and decorate your free canvas tote bag. It's totes awesome.
11am - Cadigal Green - Cookie decorating
Come and get your Picasso on! Use DELISH edible paint to decorate a Koala cookie. Better get in quick, this one is sure to be a hit!
Don't forget to share!

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Or you can contact us at development.fund@sydney.edu.au.

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