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Transplanting poop may help koalas to avoid starvation

Posted August 21, 2019

Koala bears are a symbol of Australian wildlife. In 2013 koala population grew rapidly, which is nice, but scientists noticed a worrying trend – food resources of these iconic marsupials diminished rather quickly. This lead to 70 % mortality due to starvation, which was a shocking catastrophe. Now Australian scientists found that faecal transplants could prevent such events in the future.

Koalas eat eucalyptus leaves, but they only like some of the species of this plant. Image credit: Vinko Rajic via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Manna gum, better known as eucalyptus viminalis, is koala’s favourite food source. Although leaves of these trees are not very nutritious at all, koalas feed on them almost exclusively. Poor nutritional value of these plants means that animals have to eat a lot of them at a time to gain all the necessary nutrition. And so the supply of manna gum diminishes quickly as the population of koala bears grows too quickly. Some koalas do eat other species of trees, such as messmate, but others die starving and do not even touch non-prefered food sources. Scientists became curious why that is.

Researchers studied the microbes present in koalas’ guts, collected from radio-collared wild koalas that ate messmate. They found that microbiota from different koalas’ guts determines what food they can and cannot eat. In other words, starvation was not a choice at all and koalas just couldn’t digest certain species of plants. Scientists caught wild koalas that only ate manna gum and kept them in temporary captivity. They fed them capsule with concentrated microbes from the poo of koalas that eat messmate. In other words, researchers performed transplantation of faecal microbiota in attempt to change the diet of koalas. And although it sounds bizarre, the experiment was highly successful.

Poo transplants could allow populations of koala bears to grow regardless of the availability of different eucalyptus. Image credit: Mathias Appel via Wikimedia

Faecal inoculations changed the koalas’ microbiomes and they could start eating messmate. This is a tremendous change, which could affect where koalas stay, where they feed and how they behave in situations where food resources are scarce. Dr Michaela Blyton, one of the authors of the study, said: “In future, capsules could be used to adjust koalas’ microbiomes prior to moving them to safer or more abundant environments, and as probiotics during and after antibiotic treatment”. This study already proved that the concept works, so scientists can move onto new stages of the research.

Before administering poo capsules to wild koalas, scientists have to find the best way to do that. They need to help koalas expand their diet, but not cause any adverse side effects. It will be interesting to see if this project will reach a bigger scale.


Source: University of Queensland 

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