Koalas can become stressed by noisy and up-close encounters with human visitors, a University of Melbourne study has determined.
The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) 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 University’s Animal Welfare Science Centre said researchers set out to answer this question. The research findings have been published in the May edition of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
“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 minimise energy expenditure by sleeping 20 hours a day,” Rault added.
The 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 Zoo’s 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.”
The results could have a big impact on how zoos balance visitor engagement with koala health.
(Source: The University of Melbourne media release, 19.05.2014)