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Genetic structure and diversity of the koala population in South Gippsland, Victoria: a remnant population of high conservation significance

Wedrowicz, Faye, Mosse, Jennifer, Wright, Wendy, Hogan, FionaE.
Conservation genetics 2018 v.19 no.3 pp. 713-728
DNA, climate change, feces, genetic variation, genotyping, haplotypes, homogenization, microsatellite repeats, mitochondria, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria (Australia)
In the Australian state of Victoria, the history of koalas and their management has resulted in the homogenisation and reduction of genetic diversity in many contemporary populations. Decreased genetic diversity may reduce a species’ ability to adapt to future environmental pressures such as climate change or disease. The South Gippsland koala population is considered to be unique in Victoria, as it is believed to be a remnant population, not originating from managed populations that have low genetic variation. This study investigated genetic structure and diversity of koalas in South Gippsland, with comparison to other populations in Victoria (French Island/Cape Otway, FI and Raymond Island, RI), New South Wales and south east Queensland. Population analyses were undertaken using both microsatellite genotype and mitochondrial DNA sequence data. Non-invasive sampling of koala scats was used to source koala DNA, allowing 222 South Gippsland koalas to be genotyped. Using nuclear data the South Gippsland koala population was found to be significantly differentiated (Dⱼₒₛₜ 95% CI SG–RI = 0.03–0.06 and SG–FI = 0.08–012) and more diverse (AR 95% CI SG = 4.7–5.6, RI = 3.1–3.3, FI = 3.0–3.3; p = 0.001) than other Victorian koala populations, supporting the premise that koalas in the South Gippsland region are part of a remnant population, not derived from translocated island stock. These results were also supported by mitochondrial data where eight haplotypes (Pc4, Pc17, Pc26, Pc27, and Pc56–Pc59) were identified in South Gippsland while a single haplotype (Pc27) was found in all island koalas tested. Compared to other Victorian koala populations, greater genetic diversity found in South Gippsland koalas, may provide this population with a greater chance of survival in the face of future environmental pressures. The South Gippsland koala population is, therefore, of high conservation significance, warranting the implementation of strategies to conserve this population and its diversity into the future.