Near the NSW country town of Gunnedah, proudly known as the Koala Capital of the World, researchers have made a startling discovery.
Koalas are being driven to drink.
But in Gunnedah the tree-dwelling marsupials have been drinking extensively from custom-made watering stations, even in autumn and winter.
"My thought is that the leaves they're eating are not providing enough moisture ... because with climate change the chemical composition of the leaf changes. The leaves become tougher, they become drier, they have less nutrients and they even have more toxins. In the past decade there have been a lot of heatwaves and prolonged droughts, which have killed a lot of koalas. They literally drop out of trees."
Habitat loss, climate change, vehicle collisions and outbreaks of chlamydia continue to pressure this threatened species. The Australian Koala Foundation estimates there may be as few as 43,000 koalas in the wild. Could something as simple as giving koalas water help save them?
Dr Mella is leading a world-first koala water supplementation study in Gunnedah as part of broader research into why the resident koala population has fallen by as much as half since 2008.
The team has a willing partner in local farmer Robert Frend. Concerned by the dwindling koala numbers, he designed water stations from old go-kart tyres to help them stay hydrated. Called Blinky Drinkers after the fictional children's character Blinky Bill, they only need to be topped up with water every couple of months.
"I would hate to think I didn't make an effort to save the koalas," Mr Frend, who is working on a flat-pack drinker that will be even easier for farmers and conservationists to use, said. "They're a beautiful animal."
Last April researchers set up drinkers on the ground and in trees around Mr Frend's 2100-hectare property with cameras to monitor their use. They recorded 193 visits by koalas in the cool months, even after rain, with the animals drinking for more than 10 minutes on average.The drinkers were also used by other native animals such as sugar gliders and feathertail gliders.
Dr Mella is applying for grants to continue the research. The team plans to analyse the results from summer - which smashed heat records statewide - and track koalas to see if they actively search for water.
“The next stage is to see if this will help them get through the heatwaves and droughts that are becoming more and more frequent with climate change," she said. "Hopefully we can prove that if you do give them water, they will be better equipped to deal with not only [extreme weather] but maybe disease."