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Money to help UniSC koala research projects

May 22, 2024 6:35 am in by

Two UniSC research projects will share almost $200,000 to help protect koalas from chlamydia.

The first project, in partnership with Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, aims to develop a new, simple diagnostic test to identify koalas that are more susceptible to developing chlamydia, with the aim of reducing unnecessary antibiotic treatments.

“Identifying predictors of a koala’s risk for chlamydial disease is critical,” said Dr Sam Phillips, from UniSC’s Chlamydia Research Team, who has co-developed a koala vaccine as part of ongoing efforts to stop the rapid spread of the devastating infection.

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Dr Sam Phillips in the UniSC lab.

“Not all infected koalas show symptoms or will go on to develop disease however, at the moment, most koalas that test positive to the sexually transmitted infection are treated with antibiotics.

“Unfortunately, antibiotics can disrupt the koala’s microbiome, which the animal depends on to digest eucalypt leaves, leading to starvation and occasionally death.

“For example, in 2022, 178 koalas were admitted to the Wildlife Hospital for the disease – only 48 of which were re-released. Of the many causes for koala mortality, gastrointestinal dysbiosis from antibiotic treatment was a common cause of death.”

Dr Phillips said previous studies had found six different risk factors, including the DNA load of chlamydia and koala retrovirus, which made koalas more prone to the disease progressing and leading to symptoms such as blindness, severe bladder inflammation, infertility and death.

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“Testing to see if koalas are positive for one or more of these genetic subtypes is complex, so it’s currently not possible as a frontline treatment or to test large numbers of koalas,” he said.

“Our new project aims to fill this gap by seeking to combine the markers for chlamydia disease progression into a single panel to test for these risk factors, which could help veterinarians decide whether to treat with antibiotics or not.”

The project will assess samples from more than 1,000 koalas admitted to Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital over two years.

Another UniSC project will provide new insights into the disease by identifying chlamydia hotspots among koala populations by using drones, detection dogs and koala scat analysis.

Project lead and Director of UniSC Detection Dogs for Conservation, Dr Romane Cristescu, said the new koala health data would be gathered from populations in Jimna Range, in the Sommerset Region in Queensland.

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A koala detection dog at work.

It will complement existing data from adjoining populations in the Gympie, Sunshine Coast and Noosa regions.

“Our project is using innovative and exciting methods – drone and thermal imaging, detection dogs, and non-invasive molecular analyses – to map koala density and health in areas where there are still many unknowns,” Dr Cristescu said. 

“We will use this new information to to identify Chlamydia hotspots within the region to increase our capacity to help koalas suffering from disease, which is a threat that currently kills too many koalas.

“We will engage with the community about specific ways they can help – for example by reporting koala sightings using the QWildlife app, developed by the Queensland Government.

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“We would also like to engage with wildlife rescue groups in the chlamydia hotspots to discuss their interests and needs, so we can work together to assist these koalas. As with any difficult environmental issue, collaboration is key to achieve on ground success.”

The money is being provided by the State Government.

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