A first for koala welfare – a mini-tracker for koalas!

All of the koalas in the photos above are being radio-tracked, and not one of them is wearing a radio-collar. “How?” you may ask.

We have developed a tiny and low impact radio-tracking device for koalas. For many decades, thousands of koalas across Australia have been fitted with radio-collars so that research teams can collect vital information on koala ecology and identify the threats they face.

Collars are approved for use by Animal Ethics Committees across the country and until now there have been no alternatives, however, the collars can weigh 200gm or more and can occasionally cause “collar rub” where an irritation on the koala’s neck is caused by the collar. An additional problem is that the more creative koalas often find various ways to get the collars off. The effort involved in finding and capturing a koala can be considerable; for our Blue Mountains Koala Project it involves getting in a specialised capture team who can climb the insanely tall trees (45m or more), and then having a team of people combing the bush for an average of 2 days to find one koala. If we finally find and capture a koala and then the radio-collar comes off early then we are left with no data in return for all that effort.

To resolve these issues, we’ve come up with a koala mini-tracker, a VHF tracking device that is fitted to a small ear tag. The device weighs under 10gms, a huge improvement on a collar!

By adding a VHF tracker to an ear tag we’re minimising the impact on the koala, improving it’s welfare, and we’re less likely to lose data due to the tag coming off.

Any koala that is part of research, or is taken into wildlife care due to injury or illness, has to be fitted with ear tags so that the individual can be identified. This is so that if the animal is found again later people have access to important information on the animal’s history. A great example of this was a female koala in Victoria that was rescued from bushfires, ear tagged before release and was then found again many years later and because of the ear tag people could tell she was 22 years old, a new record! So ear tags must go on anyway, and now they offer a new way to track koalas.

We are excited to have deployed the first few koala mini-trackers last week, and will be trialling them over the coming months. No doubt the koalas are happy to be collar-free. I for one was very pleased to be able to release a koala with no collar fitted to it and still be able to track it, for the first time ever. The tiny VHF units were originally designed for birds or bats so their radio transmission range on the ground, or from the back of a koala’s head, is different to that in the specifications so we are testing them across a diversity of different habitats. So far, so good. I’ll keep you informed.

Kellie

Dr Kellie Leigh
Executive Director
Science for Wildlife