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  1. ITV Report

Longleat koalas at centre of genetic breakthrough to save species

Five koalas from Australia arrived in Longleat in 2018 as part of a conservation mission. Credit: Longleat Safari Park

A group of koalas at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire have helped discover a potential scientific breakthrough in research to save the species in the wild.

Scientists working with the animals have made a genetic breakthrough which could help secure the long-term survival of the marsupial.

Koala Creek in Longleat opened in March. Credit: Longleat Safari Park

A kidney disease known as oxalate nephrosis is common among koalas and one of Longleat's own animals, Wilpena, died of the condition.

From the new research, scientists believe they have worked out the exact genetic mutation that causes that kidney disease.

Wilpena died in January 2019 after contracting a serious kidney disease. Credit: James Dennis

The koala is considered "threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature - a result of disease and habitat loss.

As things stand, the species is likely to become endangered unless urgent action is taken to reverse the decline in numbers.

It's estimated that Australia's 100,000 remaining koalas are suffering from a series of illnesses caused by a limited genetic diversity.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science worked with Longleat koalas and their keepers to identify a genetic mutation that could help protect the animal against disease.

Koalas are most at risk of kidney disease, cancers, and a form of HIV.

Dr Rachael Tarlinton said the Longleat koalas had made their research faster and easier to conduct. Credit: Longleat Safari Park

Lead researcher on the study, Dr Rachael Tarlinton, is Associate Professor of Veterinary Virology.

In the case of koalas, it’s hard to get information on disease, health and reproduction when you have to catch animals that are up 50 metre tall trees as they are in the wild.

Much of our work can’t be done without animals held in zoological collections and, while Wilpena’s death was extremely sad, it does look as though the genetic information she has provided us with could provide vital clues to help save the population in the wild.

– Dr Rachael Tarlinton, Associate Professor of Veterinary Virology

The team have been able to design tests which "could have taken years" to develop without the data collected from Wilpena.

Longlet Head Keeper Graeme Dick said the breakthrough could be "a real game-changer".

Wilpena’s death was a huge blow to the entire team here at Longleat and, whilst we always knew this disease was prevalent within the wider koala population, it was still extremely difficult for us to come to terms with.

Dr Tarlinton’s work is incredibly exciting and, if it can help to protect and safeguard populations in the wild, it will be a real game-changer and also mean Wilpena’s legacy will live on.

– Graeme Dick

Researchers say the koala population's genetic problems can be traced back to mass culls in the 19th and 20th centuries.

An estimated eight million of the animals were killed.