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Poo to the rescue: how faecal transplants can save starving koalas

A team of researchers used faecal transplants in the form of orally ingested capsules to alter the microbes in the marsupials' guts, thus allowing them to eat a wider range of eucalypts.

Dakar the koala, a young adult male who received a faecal transplant from wild koalas feeding on messmate. Picture: Michaela Blyton

WASHINGTON - Scientists in Australia have discovered how to save starving koalas whose fussy eating habits make them vulnerable to habitat loss: by feeding them poo.

A team of researchers used faecal transplants in the form of orally ingested capsules to alter the microbes in the marsupials' guts, thus allowing them to eat a wider range of eucalypts.

Their work was described in a study published in the journal Animal Microbiome on Tuesday.

Michaela Blyton of the University of Queensland's School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, the paper's lead author, said she was inspired to act after a devastating drop in the population of koalas in Cape Otway in Victoria.

"In 2013, the koala population reached very high densities, leading them to defoliate their preferred food tree species, manna gum," Blyton said.

This in turn led to a 70% mortality due to starvation - but they did not start feeding on a less preferred tree species called messmate even though some koalas feed only on messmate.

"This led me and colleague Dr Ben Moore at Western Sydney University to wonder if the microbes present in koalas' guts - their microbiomes - were limiting which species they could eat, and if we could allow them to expand their diet with faecal inoculations," said Blyton.

The team caught wild koalas that fed exclusively on manna gum, then fed them poo from messmate eating koalas packaged into acid-resistant capsules.

The capsules successfully altered the manna gum eating koalas' biomes, allowing them to eat the messmate.

"Koalas may naturally have trouble adapting to new diets when their usual food trees become over-browsed or after being moved to a new location," said Blyton.

"This study provides a proof of concept for the use of encapsulated faecal material to successfully introduce and establish new microbes in koalas' guts."

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