By Cristy Burne

A koala drinks at one of its favourite spots - a bird bath on The Dip property in Gunnedah, NSW. Photo: Kate Wilson

A koala drinks at one of its favourite spots – a bird bath on The Dip property in Gunnedah, NSW. Photo: Kate Wilson

Offering koalas a cooling drink may be vital to their survival.

Koalas have evolved to get most of the water they need from their diet of eucalyptus leaves, but as our climate dries up, so do the leaves.

Farmers and researchers in Gunnedah, in rural NSW, are trying to find out just how thirsty koalas might be, and whether it’s affecting their health.

Death by climate

Koalas are already fighting habitat destruction and disease.

Valentina Mella, an expert in animal behaviour and conservation, says it’s important to understand that climate change is a big deal for koalas.

Dr Mella, who works at the University of Sydney, says a quarter of Gunnedah’s koalas died during a recent heat wave. “That can really destroy a species,” she says.

Blinky drinkers meet secret spy

One solution is Blinky Drinkers: water bowls set high in the trees which automatically refill.

Blinky Drinkers were invented by a farmer, Rob Frend, who has been helping researchers study the koalas on his land for eight years.

University of Sydney researcher Dr Valentina Mella with a koala joey on the farm Dimberoy. Photo: Mark Krockenberger

University of Sydney researcher Dr Valentina Mella with a koala joey on the farm Dimberoy. Photo: Mark Krockenberger

“Rob knows the land and he knows something is changing,” says Dr Mella. “He kept telling me: ‘Water is important, there’s not enough water.’ ”

So Mr Frend set to work designing, building, installing (and naming) the Blinky Drinkers.

“They’re connected to very large tanks of water, so they can go weeks without being refilled,” says Dr Mella.

Slurping it up

Dr Mella used cameras to find out. “I spy on them,” she laughs. “It’s the best way to find out what they need.”

She saw koalas drinking for up to 10 minutes, even over cooler months and during the day, when they’d usually be resting.

The team will soon study whether giving koalas extra water helps keep them healthy.

“Even for people, if you’re dehydrated, you’re not going to be doing very well,” says Dr Mella.

“Water might not cure diseases like chlamydia, but it might help them push through, and give them better body condition to fight.”

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