The charismatic koala was officially listed as threatened in Australia a year ago. Koalas must deal with habitat loss, drought, and predation (including by domestic dogs) on a regular basis. However, they also face several diseases, most notably a strain of chlamydia and the koala equivalent of HIV (KoRV). The remaining population of koalas numbers 100,000 at max. The excitement surrounding this article is that researchers have succeeded in mapping the koala’s genome. Consequently, scientists have a better understanding of the koala’s interferon gamma (IFN-g) gene, which is a key chemical messenger involved in defense against cancer, viruses, and bacteria. IFN-g is also a gene found in humans and other animals as being responsible for controlling infections. Researchers are hoping to shed light on why some koalas get severe clinical diseases from chlamydia and some don’t before it’s too late. Unfortunately, KoRV is rapidly spreading its way south to Australia’s islands. The combination of the two diseases poses a major challenge for both koalas and researchers. Scientists are hoping the complete genome map will accelerate chlamydia vaccine trials for koalas and help their survival.
The article also states that about half of Australia’s koalas are infected with a strain of chlamydia that causes infertility. Obviously this is a major issue for a species that was just listed as threatened. With the apparent parallels between koala and human immune function, maybe progress on koala health will also lead to promising disease research for humans and other animals. The article also mentioned that koalas were almost hunted to extinction for their fur back in the 20s. They bounced back from that close call. I just hope they can do it again.
Now, KOALA VIDEOS! 🙂
Koala Hospital – Video by Nat Geo about koala rehabilitation. My favorite part is around the two minute mark.
Rare White Koala – Not actually an albino koala. He suffered blindness due to his chlamydia, but was able to be released after rehab.
There are also actually quite a few videos about people giving koalas water because the koalas end up wandering around looking for hydration during droughts. It is great people are helping koalas, but it’s bad that they need it. Because koalas are being forced to go look for water around humans, it also increases their risk of attack from domestic dogs. Hopefully this behavior is only exhibited in extreme cases and it doesn’t become habit-forming.