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Community spotlight: Jessie Au | Researcher

23 Aug 2018

Jessie Au is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s Research School of Biology. Jessie is close to finalising her PhD on the nutritional value of koala habitat and how this affects the behaviour and population of wild koalas.


Jessie Au in a laboratory coat, working on her PhD on the nutritional value of koala habitat and how this affects the behaviour and population of wild koalas


'Habitat is a big issue for koalas.

I believe that if you can understand more about what an animal eats, you can know more about that animal’s behaviour and then make better conservation decisions. I love what I do as I feel like my team’s research is making a difference.

As part of my research I spent 2 years driving around Australia living in a tent and taking over 2,500 samples of eucalypt leaves. During this time, I saw some beautiful places and fell in love with our country – and the koala.

We now know that eucalypt leaves are super toxic and remarkably low in protein. But also, we now know that koalas can digest these toxic leaves and get the nutrition they need to survive and reproduce. We think koalas can eat up to 200 to 300 different types of eucalypt leaves and very few animals anywhere on earth could live on a diet that is as toxic and protein-poor as the koala’s diet.

Before we started our work most people just accepted that koalas only ate eucalypt leaves. However, we found a population of koalas near Cooma in New South Wales that aren’t getting the sodium they need in their diet from the local leaves – so they have adapted to eat the bark of the brittle gum which has high levels of sodium.

It’s exciting as it shows we have so much more to learn about these beautiful animals.

There really is no other animal like the koala, and it has captured the hearts of people all around the world. My hope is that our research will help generate a koala food map that can tell us how food quality of eucalypt trees can make a forest good or bad habitat for koalas. We can then use this information to make sure that we are protecting and restoring habitat that has the right balance for koalas.

Finding and saving the right habitat will give our beloved koala the best chance to survive and thrive for generations to come.'