Thursday, July 25, 2024

Broad-scale acoustic monitoring of koala populations suggests metapopulation stability, but varying bellow rate, in the face of major disturbances and climate extremes

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This article relates to the ongoing discussion on Australian Rural & Regional News: Open for Debate: Koalas

Bradley Law, Leroy Gonsalves, Tracey Brassil, Isobel Kerr, first published 6 May 2024, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.11351

Abstract

Population trends are lacking for most threatened species, especially those that are cryptic and difficult to survey. Recent developments in passive acoustics and semi-automated call recognition provide a cost-effective option to systematically monitor populations of vocal species.

We assessed recent trends for the koala Phascolarctos cinereus, an iconic marsupial, based on 7 years of acoustic monitoring across 224 forested sites. The study period overlapped with a severe drought and extensive megafires in 2019 followed by 2 years of extremely high rainfall.

Dynamic occupancy modelling with a range of covariates at multiple landscape scales found that initial occupancy was related to elevation (−ve), NDVI (+ve) and previous selective harvesting (16–30-year age class; weakly +ve). Extinction probability increased with the extent of high-severity fire. Colonisation probability was related to a range of factors, with the top model showing a decrease with increasing lagged annual rainfall. However, the null model was also supported, suggesting weak associations for colonisation.

Using these relationships, koala occupancy was found to be high and stable over the study period. Fire did not influence regional trends because koalas often persisted with low- to moderate-severity fire and because high-severity fire was limited to 11% of their habitat.

In contrast, bellow rate varied across years, being initially low and declining immediately after the 2019 fires, with the driver of these changes unclear.

Neither timber harvesting nor low-severity fire influenced koala occupancy or bellow rate.

Given the extensive area of koala habitat in the region, our results point to the presence of a large population in these public forests, and in recent years, stable occupancy (albeit with site-scale reductions in density with high-severity fire). Ongoing monitoring is crucial for tracking future changes, especially with predictions of more frequent, severe forest fires due to climate change.

The full article is available here: https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.11351

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