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Ingestion and Absorption of Eucalypt Monoterpenes in the Specialist Feeder, the Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)

Abstract

The koala is a specialist feeder with a diet consisting almost exclusively of potentially toxic eucalypt leaves. Monoterpenes, an abundant class of plant secondary metabolites in eucalypts, are highly lipophilic. Chronic absorption and systemic exposure can be anticipated for the koala, causing health effects in various ways when consumed in high amounts, but particularly causing alterations in immune function in this species. Therefore, careful leaf selection, efficient detoxification pathways, and other specialist adaptations are required to protect animals from acute intoxication. This is the first paper providing insight into the systemic exposure of koalas to these compounds. Profiles of six selected major monoterpenes were investigated in the ingesta of deceased koalas from four different regions of NSW and South-East Queensland. Concentrations of the same compounds were measured in lymphoid tissues of deceased koalas and in the blood of live koalas from other regions of NSW. Analytical methods included liquid extraction and solid-phase micro-extraction, followed by gas-chromatography/ mass-spectrometry. Concentrations in the ingesta of individual animals vary remarkably, though the average proportions of individual monoterpenes in the ingesta of animals from the four different regions are highly comparable. Blood concentrations of the selected monoterpenes also varied considerably. The highest blood concentrations were found for 1,8-cineole, up to 971 ng/ml. There was similarity between circulating monoterpene profiles and ingesta profiles. Based on the observed lack of similarity between blood and lymph tissue concentrations, individual monoterpenes either exhibit different affinities for lymphatic tissue compared to blood or their accumulation in blood and lymph tissue differs temporally. In general, blood monoterpene concentrations found in koalas were low compared to those reported in other marsupial eucalypt feeders, but significant concentrations of monoterpenes were detected in all samples analysed. This data on blood and lymphatic tissue monoterpene concentrations builds the fundamental groundwork for future research into the effects of dietary monoterpenes on various biological processes of specialist herbivores and into the significance of these animals’ metabolic and behavioural strategies for coping with these compounds. We have shown that the systemic exposure of koalas to potentially anti-inflammatory eucalypt monoterpenes is continuous, and we provide data on physiological concentrations which will allow realistic future studies of the effects of monoterpenes on immune cell function.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge Rebecca Larkin, Allan McKinnon, and Peter Theilemann at the Moggill Koala Hospital for their support in sample collection. Thank you to all ‘Friends of the Koalas’, particularly Allen Pearson, and to the team at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, particularly Cheyne Flanagan. Thanks to David Phalen for collecting and providing koala cadavers to the faculty for our research and teaching purposes. Thank you to Mike Cannon, Will Meikle, and the team at Wild Life Sydney Zoo, NSW, Australia for their ongoing support in this study. It is much appreciated.

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Marschner, C., Krockenberger, M.B., Higgins, D.P. et al. Ingestion and Absorption of Eucalypt Monoterpenes in the Specialist Feeder, the Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). J Chem Ecol 45, 798–807 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-019-01097-x

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