Long-Term Trends in Lineage ‘Health’ of the Australian Koala (Mammalia:Phascolarctidae): Using Paleo-diversity to Prioritize Species for Conservation

  • Gilbert J. Price
Part of the Springer Earth System Sciences book series (SPRINGEREARTH)


Understanding phylogenetic diversity over large temporal scales as afforded by the fossil record allows for the identification of the history of taxonomic diversity in extant taxa. Identification of such long-term trends in lineage ‘health’ is a critical, but commonly underutilized method for helping to prioritize species for conservation. The modern Australian koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is a case in point. It is widely debated whether the modern koala should be an immediate candidate for conservation. Although modern populations have seen recent declines in some regions, in other areas koalas are overabundant, with translocation, contraceptive, and evening culling programs suggested as population control measures. The view from the fossil record is that koalas (family Phascolarctidae) have suffered a dramatic, progressive long-term decline in diversity (e.g., four genera and eight species in the late Oligocene, compared to only one genus and species at present). At no time in the known history of the Phascolarctidae has phylogenetic diversity been as low as today. Climate change, leading to enhanced variability in seasonality, increased aridfication, and habitat change has had a negative impact on phascolarctid diversity through time, and has been a determining factor in the geographic range of the modern koala. Do such observations warrant adding the modern koala to the list of threatened species? Although the answer to this question remains outside the scope of this chapter, it should be remembered that extinction of the extant koala would mark the loss of not only of a single species, but also of an entire family of endemic Australian marsupial.


Climate change Extinction Koala Lineage health Phascolarctos Phylogenetic diversity 



I thank Karen Black and Julien Louys for helpful discussions that improved this paper. Julien Louys is also thanked for editorial assistance. This research was funded in part by Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants to Price (DP0881279) and Price, Feng and Joannes-Boyau (DP120101752), an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to Price (DE120101533), and an ARC Linkage Grant to Hand, Archer, Hocknull, Worthy, Woodhead, Cendon, Zhao, Graham, Scanlon, Price and Chivas (LP0989969), with support from key Industry Partners including Xstrata Copper, Queensland Museum, Outback at Isa, and Mt Isa City Council.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Earth SciencesThe University of QueenslandSt. LuciaAustralia

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