How many visitors can a koala bear?
Koalas can become stressed by noisy and up-close encounters with human visitors, a University of Melbourne study has determined.
The koala is a much-loved Australian icon and extremely popular with foreign tourists, but little work had been done to understand how they cope with human interaction.
Dr Jean-Loup Rault from the Melbourne School of Land and Environment’s Animal Welfare Science Centre said researchers set out to answer this question.
“Our study showed that up-close and noisy encounters with human visitors resulted in koalas showing so called ‘increased vigilance,’ which is a common response to stress.
“Stress is generally an energy-costly mechanism. This could be a problem as koalas survive on an extremely low energy diet—largely made up of Eucalyptus leaves—and minimize energy expenditure by sleeping twenty hours a day.”
Researchers tested the effect of visitor numbers, visitor noise, and visitor proximity on koalas at the Koala Conservation Centre, which forms part of the Phillip Island Nature Parks network.
“This work also highlights the value and importance of behavioural observations as a monitoring tool to assess visitor-related stress in koalas,” according to Zoos Victoria’s Sally Sherwen, a collaborator on the study.
The research raises questions about the classic trade-off between visitor education and animal welfare.
“Some wildlife parks offer close encounters or even hands-on experiences with koalas,” said Dr Rault. “Only now are we beginning to understand the impact of these visitor encounters on koalas’ behaviour and welfare.”
Animal Science and Welfare at the University of Melbourne
Part of the Melbourne School of Land and Environment, the Animal Science and Welfare domain supports both the development of Australia’s livestock industries and the conservation of our native fauna through research related to the ethical care and management of animals.
The Domain consists of two distinct research groups: the Animal Welfare Science Centre, focused on the behaviour and welfare of farm and companion animals, and the Fire Ecology and Biodiversity group, who seek to measure the impact of fire events on native animal species.
The Animal Welfare Science Centre has expertise across many animal species including companion animals, livestock and captive animals. The Centre is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, Ohio State University and the Department of Primary Industries Victoria. It was established to focus and coordinate research and academic resources of the collaborators, providing the animal industries, animal users, farming communities, government and the academic and general community with an internationally competitive research, training and teaching resource in animal welfare science.