NSW STORIES

Improving collection of koala disease data

The health of koalas is critical to their survival in the wild, and the impacts of koala diseases can be devastating. Understanding the levels of disease in each population can help guide conservation efforts, but often our knowledge in this area falls short.

More work is also required to understand the key drivers of koala disease. What contributes to the prevalence of disease in some populations of koalas and not others? What factors are likely to lead to a disease outbreak, and can we prevent these with improved knowledge?

The Koala Health Hub (KHH) at Sydney University developed standardised protocols for the collection, analysis and reporting of koala disease samples. These new protocols guide the collection of high-quality samples for disease research. The aim is to maximise research benefits from any interaction with koalas.

Koala researches across the state and now using these protocols to collect and store koala scats, or poos. Wildlife carers and vets are also able to take tissue samples from koalas confident that these samples will improve our understanding of koala disease.

This project helps to fulfil the NSW Koala Strategy goal to promote and coordinate research on koalas.

In addition to standardising collection of new data, it is important to understand where existing samples and data are stored and how they can best be used to advance koala disease research.

The NSW Koala Strategy designated the Australian Museum as the central repository for genetic data relating to koalas. However, there is no such repository for koala disease data. Many research institutions have hundreds of koala tissue and scat samples stored in deep-freeze. Large databases containing thousands of records of disease-related koala data are tucked away in labs across eastern Australia.

KHH led a second project to review available data and stored samples related to koala disease for all NSW koalas.

It surveyed 260 potential stakeholders in NSW and interstate to identify where the most significant stores of samples and data were held. The survey also asked stakeholders about their preferred methods for sharing information about koala disease. One aim of the project was to find agreement on the preferred governance model for streamlining collaboration and data sharing to advance koala disease research.

Stakeholders agreed there would be benefits to a centralised model of koala disease sample and data sharing. The benefits would include improved collaboration, more effective research, and greater potential to develop solutions to koala disease including treatment and prevention. A centralised database could also help to more readily identify healthy individuals and colonies for future breeding programs.

The survey highlighted some barriers to improved collaboration on koala disease:

  • samples and data are not stored in consistent ways between institutions
  • researchers can be protective of data they have collected until they publish their findings
  • significant capacity is required to align the format of databases so that data can be readily accessed and analysed
  • independent leadership is required to avoid any perception that one research institution is unfairly controlling data.

KHH is building on this feedback to continue developing an agreed model for koala disease collaboration.

Next steps will include dedicated workshops to reach agreement on a collaborative model, and identification of funding to build a comprehensive database of koala disease samples and information.

Ultimately, the project aims to provide a central register of koala disease data and samples with integrated and standardised sample and data storage. This will result in more effective and systematic research into koala disease.

This funding was supported by the NSW Government Koala Strategy.

KOALA HEALTH PROTOCOL

“These new protocols guide the collection of high-quality samples for disease research. The aim is to maximise research benefits from any interaction with koalas.”