The survival chances of koalas in Victoria will improve thanks to a genetic discovery made by researchers at Federation University.
The researchers’ study shows that the South Gippsland koala is genetically distinct from other Victorian populations established by koalas from Phillip and French islands.
Koalas from South Gippsland have 38 additional gene variations and seven extra mitochondrial DNA – the genetic material inherited from mothers – than the island populations studied.
Lead researcher Dr Faye Wedrowicz said the finding could be key to koala survival.
“Greater genetic diversity may provide South Gippsland koalas with an increased chance of survival in the face of future pressures,” she said.
“Conserving the South Gippsland koala population and its genetic diversity are therefore highly important for the long-term survival of koalas in Victoria.
“Genetic diversity is important for the long-term persistence of a species as it provides populations with the capacity to cope with pressures such as disease or climate change.
“Due to a range of interacting factors, reduced genetic diversity is known to increase a population’s chance of extinction.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, habitat loss, bushfires and hunting led to widespread population declines and localised extinctions of koalas across Victoria.
Dr Wedrowicz said that mainland koala populations were later re-established throughout the state by koalas from island populations in the late 1800s.
“As a result, most Victorian koala populations have relatively low levels of genetic diversity,” Dr Wedrowicz said.