AboutZoos, Since 2008


Vis­i­tors are stress­ing koalas out, study reveals

pub­lished 28 May 2014 | mod­i­fied 28 May 2014

Koalas can become stressed by noisy and up-​close encoun­ters with human vis­i­tors, a Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne study has determined.

koala sandiegozooThe 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.

Our study showed that up-​close and noisy encoun­ters with human vis­i­tors resulted in koalas show­ing so called ‘increased vig­i­lance’, which is a com­mon response to stress.
« Dr Jean-​Loup Rault, Ani­mal Wel­fare Sci­ence Cen­tre, School of Land and Envi­ron­ment, Uni­ver­sity of Melbourne

“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)

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