Out on a limb: habitat use of a specialist folivore, the koala, at the edge of its range in a modified semi-arid landscape
Habitat loss and natural catastrophes reduce the resources available to animals. Species can persist if they have access to additional resources and habitats through the processes of landscape complementation and supplementation. In arid and semi-arid ecosystems, where productivity is limited by precipitation, the impact of landscape change and prolonged drought is severe on specialist species whose range boundaries are limited by aridity. We examined the pattern of occurrence by a specialist arboreal folivore, the koala, at the periphery of its biogeographic range, in a semi-arid rangeland landscape. We used hierarchical mixed modelling to examine the effect of landscape change on koala populations and their habitat use during and after a prolonged drought. We found that the tree species and the distance of a site from water courses were the most important determinants for koala presence in these landscapes. Koalas were predominantly detected in riverine habitat along the water courses, which are primary habitat and provide refugia in times of drought and extreme heat. There was a strong positive effect from the interaction between the amount of primary and secondary habitat in the landscape, although individually, the amount of each of these habitats was not important. This shows koalas will persist in more intact landscapes. There was no difference in habitat use between dry and wet years, but we consider that it can take several wet seasons for koalas to expand into habitats away from water courses.