Koalas may need faecal transplants to be able to change diet. The finding could be used to help the animals adapt to habitat loss.
Michaela Blyton at the University of Queensland first noticed something unusual while studying a koala population that had suffered a dramatic drop in numbers. In 2013, their population had grown so large that they had stripped leaves off their preferred food tree, manna gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), to such an extent that trees died. This resulted in the death of more than 70 per cent of the population.
Despite moving some of the surviving koalas to a new area, these starving animals had little interest in feeding off a similar nearby gum, the messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua). Blyton and her colleagues knew these koalas could eat messmate in theory because other koala populations live off it exclusively.
To see whether koalas’ gut microbes had anything to do with this strange finding, Blyton and her colleagues collected faeces from wild koalas that ate messmate, concentrated the microorganisms from it and then transplanted these into koalas that only ate manna gum.
Over the next 18 days, they found that koalas who had the faecal transplant were able to eat more of the messmate than those in the control group who were given manna gum microbes.
Koalas who were given the faecal transplant had microbiomes that began to resemble the donors’ microbiome over the course of the study. The authors say that capsules like this could be used to protect koalas when moving them to a new, safer environment.
Journal reference: Animal Microbiome, DOI: 10.1186/s42523-019-0008-0
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