Ground-breaking research in Gunnedah could permanently shake the long-held belief that koalas don’t need to drink water.
The University of Sydney’s Dr Valentina Mella and Gunnedah farmer Robert Frend have joined forces to look at how important water availability is for koalas.
Mr Frend has designed and constructed artificial water stations – known as Blinky Drinkers in a nod to the adventurous character Blinky Bill created by Dorothy Wall – and the team has been monitoring their use via motion-activated cameras.
Dr Mella said while many Australians were familiar with images of koalas drinking out of water bottles, hoses and containers during drought and bushfires, the common belief was still that koalas could usually get the moisture they needed from gum leaves.
So Dr Mella, Mr Frend and a team from the University of Sydney put the theory to the test, locating 10 Blinky Drinkers at ground level, and 10 in the trees on the Frend family’s property outside Gunnedah.
“For me, the results we got were absolutely shocking,” Dr Mella said. “We didn’t think we would see them drinking so much.”
The team found it was common for koalas to drink intermittently at the stations for up to an hour, even during winter and when it had been raining.
“This is a staggering result and challenges the common belief that koalas do not need to drink free water, as they get most of the water they need from the moisture in the leaves they eat,” Dr Mella said.
“The study will now continue over summer to see if, and how, koalas change how they use water stations over the hotter, and possibly much drier, months.
“The next step will be to work out whether water supplementation really benefits the Gunnedah koala population.”
Dr Mella said while the University of Sydney had looked at a whole range of factors impacting on koalas including movement, use of trees and chemistry of leaves, there was very little research available on water which could prove an important piece of the puzzle.
“It’s really interesting,” she said. “It’s about working to try and preserve an iconic animal.
“We are trying to at least do anything we can to slow their decline.”
Mr Frend, whose family has been on the property since about 1945, said he believed it was important to ensure koalas were still around for future generations to enjoy.
“I first saw koalas here in the early to mid-1970s – it was a thrill,” he said. “They increased and then plateaued in the decade from about 1995 to 2005.”
Mr Frend had been interested in the idea of making water available to koalas and jumped at the opportunity when he was contacted by Dr Mella.
“Nothing give us more pleasure than when we have Sydney relatives or friends come up here and see a koala,” he said. “It is lovely to be able to show them.”
But, he said, the numbers seemed to be on the decline.
“This is a Gunnedah problem and it could be solved in Gunnedah,” Mr Frend said. “It is still very much a work in progress.”
Mr Frend designed the prototype for the Blinky Drinker using go kart tyres but has progressed to the stage where he believes the drinkers could be made available to farmers in a flatpack.
Dr Mella is calling on local and government organisations to contact her if they want to contribute to the work, and is planning to extend the program to other landowners in the area.
For more information, contact Dr Mella at firstname.lastname@example.org
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