Helping to save Australian koalas

July 19, 2017

Saving wildlife: new study helps reveal what is making koalas sick

Murdoch University has undertaken one of the biggest studies of sick koalas in Australia in a bid to help save the iconic native animal.

In research published this month in PLOS ONE, researcher Amanda Barbosa has charted new base-line data that provides new insights into the causes of disease in this unique threatened marsupial.

Ms Barbosa from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences analysed results from 168 wild koalas that were being treated in koala hospitals for illness or trauma.

The scientific team reviewed blood samples and ticks taken from all the marsupials and, using a new methodology to simultaneously detect DNA sequences of multiple parasite species, made a surprising discovery.

“For the first time, we were able to identify mixed infections with up to five different species of the parasite called Trypanosoma, within the same koala,” Ms Barbosa said.

“This is important because it gives a clearer picture of the diverse nature of parasites that are potentially contributing to disease in our koala populations.”

This parasite is responsible for the chronic infection called sleeping sickness in Africa but its effect on koalas requires more study.

“Although some Trypanosoma species are known to cause serious disease and even death in other animals and humans worldwide, the clinical impact of mixed trypanosome infections on koala survival needs to be investigated further,” Ms Barbosa said.

In addition to causing anaemia, trypanosomes can suppress its host’s immune system and potentially predispose koalas to infections with other pathogens.

It is well known that the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia and koala retrovirus are involved in the decline of koala populations, with rates of infection up to 90 per cent in some populations.

Chlamydia affects male and female koalas. It causes blindness and infertility in koalas — and can be fatal.

Further investigation of the link between Ms Barbosa’s discovery and these known infections will help experts understand how to reduce the threat to their survival.

Remarkably, the research has even wider implications because it suggests the methodology can be successfully applied to other animal species and humans.

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