Australia’s Pickiest Eater

koala

Koalas, one of nature’s pickiest eaters, choose to only dine on eucalyptus leaves. (Photo credit: Purestock/Getty Images)

Many people have favorite foods. But the koala takes “favorite food” to the extreme. These Australian marsupials have evolved to live almost exclusively on eucalyptus leaves. And if that isn’t picky enough, recent research suggests that koalas are highly selective as to the species of eucalyptus they prefer and even the individual trees from which they choose to eat. How have these animals become so picky, and how can scientists use this information to aid in koala conservation efforts?

Filling a Niche

In ecological terms, the highly-selective diet of the koala makes them a specialist, that is, a consumer that primarily eats one specific organism or a very small number of organisms. Specialist species are generally sensitive to environmental changes, especially changes that affect the availability of their food source. However, the pickiness of koalas is likely an evolutionary adaptation.

Eucalyptus trees are the dominant trees of Australia. In fact, there are more than 700 species in the genus Eucalyptus, and most are native to Australia. However, the leaves of these trees are actually very low in protein, not easily digested, and contain compounds that are toxic to most species. Therefore, the ability for koalas to specialize in eating eucalyptus leaves has allowed them to fill an ecological niche. Koalas have virtually no competition for their preferred food source.

Koalas spend approximately 18-20 hours each day sleeping, and most of the remaining time is spent eating. They eat about 500 grams of eucalyptus leaves each day. A number of adaptations allow koalas to digest this food efficiently:

  • Powerful jaws allow the koala to chew the leaves into a very fine paste.
  • The koala’s liver is able to deactivate the toxic compounds found in eucalyptus leaves.
  • A portion of the koala’s large intestine is greatly enlarged to maximize the amount of nutrients extracted.

Studying Feeding Preference

Recent research has focused on finding what characteristics of eucalyptus leaves make them tasty for koalas. In one study, scientists tested a variety of leaves on captive koalas and recorded how much they ate. By analyzing the chemical composition of the leaves that koalas preferred, these scientists found that koalas ate less when the leaves provided to them were high in certain chemicals called formylated phloroglucinol compounds, or FPCs.

The next step in this study was to track wild koalas in a eucalyptus woodland. The scientists found that they were able to use the taste preferences of the captive koalas, based on chemical composition, to predict the tree preference of wild koalas. In addition, the scientists found that koalas spent more time in larger trees that were surrounded either by smaller, less-tasty trees or by larger trees that were equally tasty. Using this combination of leaf chemistry, tree size, and spatial environmental data, scientists hope to map koala habitats based on habitat quality, as a koala would see it.

The Future of Koala Habitats

All of this koala habitat mapping may prove very useful as the concentration of carbon dioxide continues to increase in the atmosphere. Other laboratory studies have shown that increases in carbon dioxide cause the concentration of toxins or compounds that otherwise interfere with digestion in eucalyptus leaves to increase. By studying how increased concentrations of carbon dioxide would affect the chemical composition of various Eucalyptus species, scientists may be able to predict which areas contain habitat that would most likely be of high quality for koalas in the future, and work to protect these areas.

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