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A report claims koalas are ‘functionally extinct’ – but what does that mean?

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Today the Australian Koala Foundation announced they believe “there are no more than 80,000 koalas in Australia”, making the species “functionally extinct”.

While this number is dramatically lower than the most recent academic estimates, there’s no doubt koala numbers in many places are in steep decline.

It’s hard to say exactly how many koalas are still remaining in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, but they are highly vulnerable to threats including deforestation, disease and the effects of climate change.

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Once a koala population falls below a critical point it can no longer produce the next generation, leading to extinction.




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What does ‘functionally extinct’ mean?

The term “functionally extinct” can describe a few perilous situations. In one case, it can refer to a species whose population has declined to the point where it can no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem. For example, it has been used to describe dingoes in places where they have become so reduced they have a negligible influence on the species they prey on.

Dingoes are top predators, and therefore can play a significant role in some ecosystems. Our innocuous, leaf-eating koala cannot be considered a top predator.

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For millions of years koalas have been a key part of the health of our eucalyptus forests by eating upper leaves, and on the forest floor, their droppings contribute to important nutrient recycling. Their known fossil records date back approximately 30 million years so they may have once been a food source for megafauna carnivores.

Functionally extinct can also describe a population that is no longer viable. For example in Southport, Queensland, native oyster reef beds are functionally extinct because more than 99% of the habitat has been lost and there are no individuals left to reproduce.

Finally, functionally extinct can refer to a small population that, although still breeding, is suffering from inbreeding that can threaten its future viability. We know that at least some koala populations in urban areas are suffering in this way, and genetic studies on the Koala Coast, located 20kms south-east of Brisbane, show that the population is suffering from reduced genetic variation. In South East Queensland, koalas in some areas have experienced catastrophic declines

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We also know that koala populations in some inland regions of Queensland and New South Wales are affected by climate extremes such as severe droughts and heatwaves and have declined by as much as 80%.

Exhaustive multi-disciplinary koala research continues apace in an effort to find ways of protecting wild koala populations and ensuring that they remain viable now and into the future. Habitat loss, population dynamics, genetics, disease, diet and climate change are some key areas being studied.

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How many koalas are there?

Koala researchers are often asked “how many koalas are in the wild?” It’s a hard question to answer. Koalas are not stationary, are patchily distributed throughout an extremely wide range encompassing urban and rural areas in four states and one territory, and are usually difficult to see.

To determine whether each population of koalas scattered across eastern Australia is functionally extinct would require a gargantuan effort.

Koalas are a key part of eucalyptus forests’ health.
Dave Hunt/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 2016, in an attempt to determine population trends for the koala within the four states, a panel of 15 koala experts used a structured, four-step question format to estimate bioregional population sizes of koalas, and changes in those sizes.

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The estimated percentage of koala population loss in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia was 53%, 26%, 14% and 3%, respectively. The estimated total number of koalas for Australia was 329,000 (within a range of 144,000–605,000), with an estimated average decline of 24% over the past three generations and the next three generations.

Since May 2012, koalas have been listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory because populations in these regions have declined significantly or are at risk of doing so.

In the southern states of Victoria and South Australia, koala populations vary widely from abundant to low or locally extinct. Although not currently listed as vulnerable, these koalas are also experiencing a range of serious threats, including low genetic diversity.

To date, the present “vulnerable” listing has not achieved any known positive results for koala populations in Queensland and New South Wales. In fact, recent research invariably shows the opposite.

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This is because the key threats to koalas remain, and are mostly increasing. The primary threat is habitat loss. Koala habitat (primarily eucalyptus woodlands and forests) continues to rapidly diminish, and unless it is protected, restored, and expanded, we will indeed see wild koala populations become “functionally extinct”. We know what comes after that.The Conversation

Christine Adams-Hosking, Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Trump announces toughest sanctions ‘ever’ on Iran

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President Donald Trump on Friday announced new sanctions on Iran's central bank, calling the measures the toughest ever imposed on another country by the United States.

"We have just sanctioned the Iranian national bank," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

"These are the highest sanctions ever imposed on a country," he said.

The Trump administration has vowed a response after US officials blamed Iran for weekend blasts on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, which caused a sharp hike in global crude prices.

The United States already maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran including on its central bank, with anyone who deals with it subject to prosecution.

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President Donald Trump on Friday uncorked a strange and nonsensical rant about the virtues of so-called "clean coal" during an Oval Office conversation with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

When asked about the importance of Australia's mineral industry, the president praised the country for doing so much to extract resources in what he described in an environmentally friendly way.

"Coal, as an example, you're the leader of safety in coal digging and we've actually studied it," the president said. "We're doing a lot of coal. You have very little -- you have almost no -- used to have a thing, black lung disease, and in Australia you almost don't have it anymore, you've got all of the dust down."

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The View explodes in confusion after Meghan McCain makes Trump’s Ukraine debacle all about herself

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Meghan McCain managed to place herself at the center of a debate about a whistleblower complaint filed against President Donald Trump.

"The View" grappled with reports that Trump dangled U.S. military aid to Ukraine in exchange for damaging information against Joe Biden, and co-host Abby Huntsman agreed that was an impeachable offense -- but expressed doubts about the accuracy.

"This is a blown-up story and we have no facts, there's no gray area," Huntsman said. "It's black and white, and that would give Trump all the more ammunition if this isn't even true to say, this is what the media does."

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