In south-west Queensland, anecdotal reports have indicated koala populations have been significantly impacted by drought from 2001–2009. This study aimed to compare koala distribution and numbers in south-west Queensland in 2009 with pre-drought estimates from 1995–1997. It also sought to understand impacts that more frequent drought and heatwaves might have koalas.
Community surveys and faecal pellet surveys were used to assess koala distribution. Population densities were estimated using the Faecal Standing Crop Method. From these densities, koala abundance in 10 habitat units was interpolated across the study region. Climate data and land clearing were examined as possible explanations for changes in koala distribution and numbers between the two time periods.
Although there was only a minor change in distribution, there was an 80% decline in koala numbers across the study region, from a mean population of 59,000 in 1995 to 11,600 in 2009. Most summers between 2002 and 2007 were hotter and drier than average.
Vegetation clearance was greatest in the eastern third of the study region, with the majority of clearing being in mixed eucalypt/acacia ecosystems and vegetation on elevated residuals.
Changes in the area of occupancy and numbers of koalas led the researchers to conclude that drought significantly reduced koala populations and that they contracted to critical riparian habitats. Land clearing in the eastern part of the region may reduce the ability of koalas to move between habitats.
The increase in hotter and drier conditions expected with climate change will adversely affect koala populations in south-west Queensland and may be similar in other wildlife species in arid and semiarid regions. The effect of climate change on trailing edge populations may interact with habitat loss and fragmentation to increase extinction risks.
Monitoring wildlife population dynamics at the margins of their geographic ranges will help to manage the impacts of climate change.
Seabrook L, C McAlpine, G Baxter, J Rhodes, A Bradley & D Lunney (2011). Drought-driven change in wildlife distribution and numbers: a case study of koalas in south west Queensland. Wildlife Research 38: 509–524.