South American marsupials climb higher than thought


This February 2018 video from Chile is called Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides).

From the Ecological Society of America:

South American marsupials discovered to reach new heights

For the first time, scientists catch on camera a tiny marsupial climbing higher than previously thought in the forest canopy

October 18, 2018

In the Andean forests along the border of Chile and Argentina, there have long been speculations that the mouse-sized marsupial monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) climbs to lofty heights in the trees. Yet, due to the lack of knowledge about the region’s biodiversity in the forest canopies, no previous records exist documenting such arboreal habits for this creature.

Some tree-climbing researchers are changing that.

Javier Godoy-Güinao and colleagues set motion-sensing camera traps in the tree canopy to capture photographic evidence confirming the high-climbing theories surrounding this miniature mammal. The findings are published in a new study in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecosphere.

The monito del monte (Spanish for “little monkey of the bush”, although not a monkey at all) is a small, inarguably cute marsupial that is found solely in the temperate rainforests of Argentina and Chile. It eats mostly insects with some fruit and seeds and nuts, and it also hibernates, which is unusual for marsupials. Females can carry up to five young in a pouch, and a prehensile tail makes it adept at climbing. It is listed as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Researchers thought this marsupial may live in the canopy because of its mobility in the vegetation above the forest floor, called the understory. “However,” Godoy-Güinao writes, “all previous studies on D. gliroides have been conducted from the ground, with no documentation of this species’ ability to climb trees, or how high they may reach.” Following the clues from reported sightings, he and his colleagues found the mystery intriguing and decided it worth finding out first hand just how high they climb.

Along with Ivan Díaz, professor in charge of the Laboratory of Canopy Ecology and Biodiversity (CanopyLab) of the Universidad Austral de Chile, and Juan Luis Celis-Diez, professor at P. Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Godoy-Güinao began studies in 2017 in Bosque Pehuén Park. The park is a protected area owned by the Mar Adentro Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to promoting conservation of and education on biodiversity, and to cultural development in the region.

Researchers climbed high (12-21 m) into the treetops to install the camera traps and patiently waited to capture images of this elusive marsupial. After months of waiting and collecting data, the tiny creatures appeared within the highest camera trap’s view, and it snapped hundreds of photos.

Armed with proof that it is a frequent climber to the highest point of the tallest trees, Godoy-Güinao argues that the role of the monito del monte in the canopy is much more relevant to the biodiversity of the ecosystem than originally thought.

One of its large role lies in seed germination and dispersal. In the treetops of Chilean forests, previous studies by the CanopyLab showed a great variety of air plants such as orchids, bromeliads, lichens, mosses, and ferns that grow within the trees. The monito del monte is a seed disperser of most of these plants; it eats wild fruits and swallows the seeds whole, which then pass through its digestive track and are ready to germinate upon excretion. Given the frequency with which the species visits these high places, it could be the main sower of the plants that make up this vertical garden. Additionally, it is an avid consumer of the insects that attack the foliage of these trees.

Godoy-Güinao hopes that continued study will shed light on the importance of the monito del monte in the treetops, as well learn more about the species. For now, he says, “this evidence suggests that [it] is perhaps the main or only mammal of the region that ventures into the heights of trees, and it can have a very influential role in the biodiversity of the southern South American temperate rainforests.”

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Kangaroos in Australia, video


This 10 September 2018 video says about itself:

The kangaroo is one of Australia’s most recognizable marsupials and is the only large animal to hop!

What did koalas’ ancestors eat?


This 22 August 2018 video is called Wear on koala teeth indicates what they ate, not the dirt on it.

From Vanderbilt University in the USA:

Want to know what ancient koalas ate? Check modern koalas‘ teeth

August 22, 2018

Summary: New research confirms the shape of tooth wear best indicates the kind of food modern koalas and kangaroos ate, not whether it was covered in dust and dirt.

Paleontologist Larisa DeSantis studies the teeth of ancient and modern mammals to determine how their diets changed across the millennia and, by extension, their responses to climate change.

But the question lingered: Is wear on teeth an indicator of what kangaroos and koalas ate or just how much gritty dust and dirt they consumed?

The Vanderbilt University professor’s latest research, published today in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, confirms the shape of tooth wear best indicates what they were eating, not what was on it.

“We can investigate the teeth in modern animals, begin to understand exactly what they’re recording and then take that information — a kind of Rosetta Stone — back into the fossil records and interpret the behavior of fossil animals”, said DeSantis, assistant professor of earth and environmental science. “While we eventually aim to look at how diets have changed over long periods of climate change, this study focused on whether these teeth were recording diet or aridity.”

DeSantis targeted Australian marsupials for her dental mesowear work because that continent has been drying out over millions of years, making it a rich environment to study how changing climate prompts animal evolution.

For this particular study, she and a team of Vanderbilt graduate and undergraduate students analyzed casts and photographs of teeth from koalas and kangaroos that died over the past few decades to compare with modern climate and dietary data.

Koala genetic code discovery


This 2016 video from Australia is called KOALA RESCUE: Passing bikers stopped to help pull a drowning koala from a river. Video by Mario Orcon.

From the University of Sydney in Australia:

Cracking the genetic code of koalas

July 2, 2018

Summary: The koala genome has been sequenced in a world first, by an international consortium of conservation scientists and geneticists. Considered to be the most complete marsupial genome sequenced in terms of quality — on par with the human genome — the highly accurate genomic data will provide information to inform habitat conservation, tackle diseases and help ensure this iconic animal’s long-term survival.

A team of Australian and international scientists, led by Professor Rebecca Johnson, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute and Professor Katherine Belov, University of Sydney, have made a significant break-through successfully sequencing the full koala genome, with the findings published today in Nature Genetics.

Considered to be the most complete marsupial genome sequenced to date, it is in terms of quality, on par with the human genome. The highly accurate genomic data will provide scientists with new information that will inform conservation efforts, aid in the treatment of diseases, and help to ensure the koala‘s long-term survival.

“The Koala Genome Consortium has been an ambitious journey affording us great insights into the genetic building blocks that make up a koala — one of Australia’s, as well as the world’s, most charismatic and iconic mammals,” Professor Johnson said.

“This milestone has come from our vision to use genomics to conserve this species. The genetic blueprint has not only unearthed a wealth of data regarding the koala‘s unusual and highly specialised diet of eucalyptus leaves, but also provides important insights into their immune system, population diversity and the evolution of koalas“, she said.

Co-lead author at the University of Sydney, Professor of Comparative Genomics, Katherine Belov said:

“The genome provides a springboard for the conservation of this biologically unique species.”

The Australian led consortium of scientists comprised 54 scientists from 29 different institutions across seven countries. They have sequenced over 3.4 billion base pairs and more than 26,000 genes in the Koala genome — which makes it slightly larger than the human genome. Unlocking the genomic sequence gives scientists unprecedented insights into the unique biology of the koala.

Professor Johnson said the uneven response of koala populations throughout their range was one of the major challenges facing broad scale management of the species.

“The genome enables a holistic and scientifically grounded approach to koala conservation”, she said. “Australia has the highest mammal extinction record of any country during the Anthropocene.

“Koala numbers have plummeted in northern parts of its range since European settlement, but have increased in some southern parts, notably in Victoria and South Australia.”

Director and CEO, Australian Museum, Kim McKay, AO congratulated Professor Johnson and the team on this achievement.

“Today we celebrate the completion of the highest quality, marsupial genome sequencing undertaken to date. This work was brought about through the meticulous efforts not only of Professor Johnson and Professor Belov, but also the contributions from many other Australian Museum scientists, as well as scientists from around the nation and the world. It will usher in a new era in our understanding and conservation of the iconic koala”, she said.

Professor Jennifer Graves, AO, Distinguished Professor of Genetics, La Trobe University and winner of the 2017 PM’s Prize for Science, said: “We could never have imagined, when we were pioneering koala genetics in the 1980s, that one day we’d have the entire koala genome sequence. This opens up all sorts of ways we can monitor the genetic health of koala populations.”

The Koala Genome Consortium announced the establishment of the project in 2013 with its first unassembled draft genome. The collective aim was to steer their research towards ensuring the long-term survival of this important marsupial while simultaneously increasing Australia’s genomics capability.

Since then, researchers have worked tirelessly to assemble this genome into the most complete and accurate marsupial genome to date and annotate its 26,000 genes for analysis. The koala genome has been sequenced to an accuracy of 95.1%, which is comparable to that of the human genome.

The 3.4 billion base pairs of the published Koala genome were sequenced at the Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics, at the University of New South Wales, using new sequencing technology.

“We then assembled the genome with supercomputers, allowing the Consortium to then study the >20,000 genes of this unique species,” said Professor Marc Wilkins, Director, Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics, UNSW.

Consortium members from the Earlham Institute (EI), (Norwich, UK) identified that koalas have two large expansions in a gene family known to be integral to detoxification, the Cytochrome P450 gene family of metabolic enzymes. They found these genes to be expressed in many koala tissues, particularly in the liver; indicating they have a very important function in detoxification and likely allowed koalas to become dietary specialists.

As Professor Johnson explains, “this probably helped them to find their niche to survive, as they could rely on a food source that would have less competition from other species who were not able to detoxify as effectively.”

Dr Will Nash in the Haerty Group at Earlham Institute, said: “Gene duplication can lead to copies of genes associated with specific functions being retained in the genome. In the Koala, the largest group of retained copies make an enzyme that breaks down toxins. This means the Koala has evolved an excellent toolkit to deal with eating highly toxic eucalypts, one made up of lots of copies of the same (or very similar) tools.”

According to Professor Belov, another important discovery was the characterisation of the composition of koala milk. Like all marsupials, koalas do the majority of their development in the pouch. They are born without an immune system after 34-36 days gestation and spend ~6 months developing in the pouch.

“We characterised the main components of the mothers’ milk — which is crucial for koala joeys — born the size of a kidney bean and weighing half of one gram,” Professor Belov said.

“We identified genes that allow the koala to finetune milk protein composition across the stages of lactation, to meet the changing needs of their young.”

“Thanks to the high-quality genome, the team was able to analyse and discover koala-specific milk proteins that are critical for various stages of development. It also appears these proteins may have an antimicrobial role, showing activity against a range of bacterial and fungal species, including Chlamydia pecorum, the strain known to cause ocular and reproductive disease in koalas”, she said.

Chlamydia causes infertility and blindness and has severely impacted koala populations in New South Wales and Queensland. Using information gained from the koala genome, scientists hope to develop a vaccine to fight diseases like Chlamydia.

Professor Peter Timms, University of the Sunshine Coast said: “In addition to Chlamydia, the other major infection that is threatening the species is koala retrovirus (KoRV), however very little is presently known about it. The complete koala genome has been instrumental in showing that an individual koala can have many (more than a hundred) insertions of KoRV into its genome, including many versions of KoRV.

“This information will enable to determine which strains of KoRV are more dangerous and to assist with our development of a KoRV vaccine,” he said.

One of the most threatening processes to koala survival is loss of habitat through land clearing and urbanisation which results in a reduction of habitat connectivity, reduced genetic diversity and puts koalas at high risk of inbreeding. The results of inbreeding can be highly detrimental to survival of those koala populations as it leads to reduced genetic diversity.

Professor Johnson added: “For the first time, using over 1000 genome linked markers, we are able to show that NSW and QLD populations show significant levels of genetic diversity and long-term connectivity across regions.

“Ensuring this genetic diversity is conserved in concert with other conservation measures to protect habitat, reduce vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease, are the keys to the long-term survival of the koala.”

Dr Graham Etherington in the Di Palma Group at the Earlham Institute, said: “With its puppy-dog looks, the Koala is an internationally recognised species. But this iconic Australian marsupial is not just a pretty face.

“The Koala genome assembly is by far the most comprehensive marsupial genomic resource to date, which allows us an insight into how this unique animal came to be and provides us with information about potential threats to its survival. It also provides us with an excellent platform to launch further marsupial genome projects that could look into potential genetic reservoirs of previously unknown anti-microbial genes that could be leveraged for human health.

“Additionally, it provides us with an incredible amount of information about genetic diversity across different populations of koalas that can be used as a benchmark for further studies on other endangered marsupial species.”

This genomic sequencing represents the new generation of science-based conservation policy as it has already been integrated as an important pillar into the NSW Koala Strategy 2018.

All of the sequence data generated by The Koala Genome Consortium has been deposited into public databases and made freely available to scientists around the world.

“Not only does open data promote the best interests of science, it also maximises the benefits that the koala populations, and the public, receive from such research”, Professor Johnson said.

The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is a native tree-dwelling Australian marsupial that is one of the world’s most fascinating and iconic mammals. Not only is the koala synonymous with Australia it is also a powerful international symbol for the preservation and conservation of our natural world.

Wild koalas are currently found in eucalypt forest and woodlands across Eastern Australia (Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland) and have been translocated to other sites, such as south eastern South Australia and onto some islands such as Kangaroo Island, South Australia and French Island, Victoria.

Their unique and highly specific diet of eucalyptus (gum) tree leaves, has resulted in koalas being especially vulnerable to habitat loss due to the clearing of native vegetation for agriculture and urban development. The Australian Federal government lists koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory as ‘Vulnerable’ under national environment law.

“Our next efforts must be in the application of these findings to genetically manage koala populations, advance the treatment of the diseases affecting koalas, with the goal of conserving this very important species”, Professor Johnson said.

Sequencing of the koala genome has revealed some interesting qualities about these marsupials on their sense of taste. They have more bitter taste receptor genes than any other Australian marsupial, and most mammals. This possibly enables the animals to detect toxic metabolites contained in eucalyptus. Koalas even have functional receptors for both sweetness and umami: here.

Ancient virus defends koalas against new viral attacks: here.

Tasmanian thylacines, video


This video says about itself:

How Evolution Turned A Possum Into A Wolf

5 June 2018

Until the early 20th century, Tasmania was home to a very weird wolf-like creature. Except that it wasn’t a wolf. Even though it looked like a wolf. How did that happen? Here’s the science of convergent evolution!

Possum defends babies against monitor lizard


This BBC video, recorded in Australia, says about itself:

16 March 2018

A Lace Monitor Lizard eyes a Possum‘s nest as an easy meal but doesn’t count on the female Possum fighting tooth and claw to defend her babies.

Researchers have evidence that an extinct species of monitor lizard had four eyes, a first among known jawed vertebrates. Today, only the jawless lampreys have four eyes: here.

Australian wombat news


This video from Australia says about itself:

George the Wombat Begins New Life in the Wild | Nat Geo Wild

11 February 2018

A famous orphaned wombat will move into new home where he’ll be closer to the wild.

Monitoring wombats for behaviors such as pacing and rump biting could help conservation efforts by increasing the success of captive breeding: here.