Adelaide researcher uncovers hidden secret about koalas

A Flinders University researcher is changing the way we see and identify one of Australia’s most iconic animals. (Image Source: Cleland Wildlife Park)

By Rebecca Gaitaneris | @bec_gaitaneris

From unlocking a phone to solving a homicide, fingerprints are used in our everyday lives to differentiate between people.

Every human has a unique fingerprint that serves as a biometric identifier, that is, a measurement that can be used to distinguish between individuals.

But what physical characteristics distinguish koalas from each other?

New research conducted by Flinders University suggests that zoo and wildlife keepers are able to distinguish individual koalas based on the pigmentation pattern of a koala’s nostrils.

Honours graduate Claire Lawrance, and various Flinders University researchers, say their research may prove crucial in tracking koala populations in Australia’s bushfire-ravaged areas.

As a major component of her Honours research, Ms Lawrance distributed a survey to various koala keepers around Australia.

“My research indicated that the majority of koala keepers consider all koalas to be individually distinct,” she said.

“Most koala keepers select the nose region as the most individually distinctive region of a koalas face.”

More specifically, they attributed this to the markings and patterns of the koala’s nostrils. Ms Lawrance said this finding supported the results of a computer software program designed by her research supervisors.

“They found that most key points used by the software program, to match photographs of the same individual koala, were around the nose of the koala faces,” Ms Lawrance said.

“As a result, we could statistically identify variables that affected the accuracy of the cross-correlation study between photographs of the same individual.”

According to Ms Lawrance, these findings provide an essential first step towards the development of a future non-invasive individual identification method for koalas.

 “Ultimately, koala identification will be based on photographs of the ‘koala fingerprint’– their nostril patterns,” she said.

Ms Lawrance says the ability to recognise individual animals is extremely important in animal research.

“Data on the movement of individual animals can be used to accurately measure population size and distribution,” Ms Lawrance said.

“It enables us to gain valuable information on demographic data of populations including the estimation of age, social structure and breeding success.

“This information is necessary for the development of meaningful conservation management strategies.”

The development of an accurate and reliable software assisted method for identifying individual koalas, based on photographs of distinct nostril patterns, can become a widely implemented tool monitor wild koalas in the future.

“Due to being an arboreal species, capturing koalas to apply tags for future identification can be a challenging task,” Ms Lawrance said.

“Taking photographs is a non-invasive method, with the potential to enable more individuals to be monitored more frequently.

“We will be able to gain further insight on koala movement patterns and population numbers around the country.”

Ms Lawrance said she has a newfound appreciation for the insights provided by trans-disciplinary research programs that can open new vistas and research perspectives.

My Lawrance encourages people to keep their eyes and ears open.

She said an important lesson she has taken away from her university studies and research is that “you can learn so much through observing wildlife”.

“I have always loved animals and have been very lucky to have grown up surrounded by pets and in an area where I can also observe lots of wildlife, ” she said.

“We still have so many secrets about the world around us to uncover … our findings with the koalas is just the beginning.”

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