Freezing koala sperm could save marsupial from extinction, scientists say

Blake AntrobusNCA NewsWire
Not Supplied
Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: Supplied

Freezing koala sperm could help save the cuddly and iconic marsupial from extinction, a team of Australian scientists have argued.

The recent study, published by researchers from prominent universities and wildlife societies across the country, says the process of freezing the animal’s sex cells could help improve genetic diversity in the dwindling populations and cut a sizeable cost in captive breeding programs.

Dr Ryan Witt and Dr Lachlan Howell at Port Stephens Koala Hospital. The pair have published a paper with other scientists exploring the potential of freezing koala sperm for use in captive breeding programs.
Camera IconDr Ryan Witt and Dr Lachlan Howell at Port Stephens Koala Hospital. The pair have published a paper with other scientists exploring the potential of freezing koala sperm for use in captive breeding programs. Image taken by University of Newcastle staff. Credit: Supplied

The move comes after koalas were declared “endangered” in Queensland, NSW and the ACT.

Two years ago a NSW Parliamentary report found the marsupial could become extinct in the state by 2050.

In the paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Animals, the researchers suggest “biobanking” – the freezing of sex cells and tissues for use in assisted breeding – could address the current economic and genetic challenges in captive breeding programs.

They argue female koalas could be impregnated with this frozen sperm in breed-for-release programs across the country.

The researchers found the biobanking proposal could cut koala breeding program costs by five to 12 times.
Camera IconThe researchers found the biobanking proposal could cut koala breeding program costs by five to 12 times. Credit: News Regional Media

“Currently, we have no optimised tools that can store live koala reproductive material, such as sperm,” Dr Ryan Witt, co-author and University of Newcastle conservation scientist, said.

“So, we have no insurance policy against natural disasters like the 2019-2020 bushfires that threaten to wipe out large numbers of animals at the one time.

“If the koala population dies in these kind of fire events, there is no way to bring them back or preserve their genetics.”

Dr Witt said the model developed by the team would cut breeding program costs by five to 12 times.

“This would free up valuable conservation funding to support a greater number of species, or to support other koala conservation efforts such as habitat restoration,” he said.

“By integrating assisted reproduction we can reduce the number of koalas needing to be in captivity, lower costs, and improve genetic diversity.”

During the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires, 60,000 koalas were killed, injured or displaced, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

The bushfires impacted more than 41,000 koalas on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, 11,000 in Victoria, nearly 8000 in NSW and nearly 900 in Queensland.

Originally published as Freezing koala sperm could save marsupial from extinction, scientists say

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