With all the worries of our personal COVID-19 quarantine, it can be easy to forget how the pandemic is affecting the wider world. Last week we talked about the Forgotten Role of Plants, so this week we are checking in with animals. Weird stuff has been happening in the animal kingdom since long before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Even though humans are staying inside, new discoveries are being made about how climate change affects animals, particularly koalas.
In Australia, scientists have discovered that koalas lick trees when thirsty. This is a surprising new discovery because it was previously believed that the furry marsupials got all of their water from eating eucalyptus leaves. The new research suggests that the animals actually get the majority of their hydration from licking eucalyptus trees when moisture collects on their bark after rainstorms, undermining what has long been considered a textbook ecological example of ecological balance. This news is especially poignant in a time when eucalyptus trees are dwindling in Australia. Last year’s wildfires in Australia have decimated both plant and animal life. Indigenous Australians have used controlled burning techniques, burning overgrown forests and allowing them to grow back regularly, to keep Eucalyptus forests healthy for thousands of years. Unfortunately, however, this onslaught has seemingly been more than the delicate ecosystem can bear. To make matters worse, climate change has increased the severity of natural “climate drivers”, small factors that influence large climates, like the Indian Ocean Dipole, leading to droughts, flooding, and a decrease in rainfall.
Many of those factors contribute to making Australia extremely vulnerable to wildfires, and in the wake of the blazes they are continuing to make things hard for Koalas. With fewer trees, and subsequently leaves, to rely on, Koalas have likely begun licking the trees themselves at a higher rate. This drew scientists’ attention to the phenomenon, leading to the groundbreaking new research. With decreased rainfall, however, even this strategy is problematic. Across the continent, Australians have reported Koalas that seem incredibly thirsty, even overcoming a natural fear of humans for a sip of water.
As funny as pictures of tree licking Koalas might be, the species really is in serious danger. In 2012 the Koala was declared a vulnerable species on the endangered species scale in some Australian regions, although not in all. In the above post, “bikebug2019” urged users to donate to koala rescue teams. If you care about the future of koalas consider doing so. Without help it is possible that there may be no more koala internet videos in the near future.