Koalas: Floating Research Station

It has been a busy month for the St. Bees Island koala project, not that you would know it from the number of koala bellows we are recording on the island. (See previous blog, Koalas of St. Bees Use Cell Phones.) As usual, when the koalas over at the San Diego Zoo are getting their vocal chords warmed up, those at St. Bees are being quiet. I have just stepped off a boat that has been my home for the last few weeks, having finished a survey of the other islands that lie close to St. Bees, off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

Thanks to our close relationship with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) rangers, I was fortunate enough to travel aboard the Tamoya, a 43-foot (13-meter) catamaran that is operated by the Mackay Marine Parks team to conduct their island infrastructure maintenance and compliance work. This boat became our home as we stopped in at a few of the other islands that are home to koalas in the Whitsunday region of Australia.

First stop was Newry Island, then Rabbit Island, then across to Brampton, and finally, St. Bees. Newry and Rabbit Islands are very close to the mainland and we suspected that koalas from these islands got across the mudflats to visit their coastal counterparts. To check on this, we put a Global Positioning System collar on the only koala (named Nigel) we found on Newry Island last year. We found him on the current trip and downloaded his GPS data. Nigel never left Newry Island, although his GPS data revealed that he had traversed the whole island while we were away. I wonder how he got to the island, if he doesn’t ever leave?

After finding five more koalas on these close islands, we floated off to Brampton, where we found more koalas, even a small koala (named Inky) that Fred Bercovitch and I had found in October last year. It seems that this population of koalas is larger than anyone had predicted. The koalas on Brampton Island are also quite healthy, and judging by the number of young koalas we are finding, they aren’t having any problems finding one another in the rain forests.

Finally, to St. Bees, where we renewed acquaintances with all the regulars. Koala Elizabeth was looking very well and has a two-month-old pouch young, so she bred later than usual this year. I even found The Hurricane, a big male who has evaded us since he broke his collar two years ago. I hope to bring him back into the “collared crew” on a later trip this year.

I was very lucky to be able to travel with the QPWS crew for this trip, but we are already planning for another trip with the rangers in the future. Since part of their job is looking after all the wildlife on all of the islands, they too are interested in the koalas of St. Bees.

Bill Ellis is a Conservation Research postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo.

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