Poo transplants are helping expand koala microbiomes, allowing the marsupialsto eat a wider range of eucalypts and possibly survive habitat loss.

A study featuring a University of Queensland researcher, built on extensiveresearch conducted at Western Sydney University, has analysed and alteredmicrobes in koalas’ guts, finding that a faecal transplant may influence whatspecies of eucalypt koalas can feed on.

UQ School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences Dr Michaela Blyton wasinspired to conduct the research after a devastating drop in the koalapopulation on Cape Otway in Victoria.

“In 2013 the koala population reached very high densities, leading them todefoliate their preferred food tree species, manna gum,” Dr Blyton said.

“This led to 70 per cent mortality due to starvation, which was verydistressing.

“What was interesting was that even though the koalas were starving, theygenerally didn’t start feeding on a less preferred tree species, messmate,despite the fact that some koalas feed exclusively on messmate.

“This led me and colleague Dr Ben Moore at Western Sydney University to wonderif the microbes present in koalas’ guts – their microbiomes – were limitingwhich species they could eat, and if we could allow them to expand their dietwith faecal inoculations.”

The team caught wild koalas that only ate manna gum and kept them in temporarycaptivity at the Cape Otway Conservation Ecology Centre.

“We collected poo from radio-collared wild koalas that ate messmate,concentrated the microorganisms in the poo, packaged it into acid-resistantcapsules and gave them to the captive koalas,” Dr Blyton said.

“We then monitored how much messmate the koalas were willing to eat over an18-day period and assessed how the microbiomes changed after the inoculations,comparing their diets to those of control koalas that received manna gummicrobes.”

The researchers found that the faecal inoculations changed the koalas’microbiomes, allowing them to eat messmate.

“This could affect all aspects of their ecology including nutrition, habitatselection and resource use,” Dr Blyton said.

“Koalas may naturally have trouble adapting to new diets when their usual foodtrees become over browsed or after being moved to a new location.

“This study provides a proof of concept for the use of encapsulated faecalmaterial to successfully introduce and establish new microbes in koalas’ guts.

“In future, capsules could be used to adjust koalas’ microbiomes prior tomoving them to safer or more abundant environments, and as probiotics duringand after antibiotic treatment.”

The research has been published in Animal Microbiome (DOI:10.1186/s42523-019-0008-0).

The project was a collaborative effort between researchers at UQ, WesternSydney University, ANU, Deakin University and Cape Otway’s ConservationEcology Centre.

Image: Dakar the young male koala that received a faecal transplant from wildkoalas feeding on messmate. in his enclosure at the Conservation EcologyCentre, Cape Otway. Credit: Michaela Blyton.

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