14 May 1998

A Queensland research team today announced the birth of the world's first koala baby, following artificial insemination of its mother.

University of Queensland researchers Steve Johnston and Dr Michael McGowan, in collaboration with Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary head curator Paul O'Callaghan reported the sighting of a baby koala in the pouch of its mother, "Robyn" on Tuesday at the Brisbane sanctuary.

Robyn was artificially inseminated on April 10 by Dr McGowan using donor sperm collected by Steve Johnston and Paul O'Callaghan from a male Lone Pine koala named "Mica".

Thirty-four days later, the jelly-bean sized, hairless, blind baby was born, and within a minute had crawled into its mother's pouch and attached to a teat.

Now three days old, the as-yet-unnamed baby weighs less than one gram and will remain hidden from the world in its mother's pouch until it emerges, about kitten-sized, in six months time, for its first view of the outside world.

Research team members said the result represented the first such artificial breeding success in any marsupial.

It was the culmination of four years research collaboration between the University's School of Veterinary Science and Animal Production and Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

"The fundamental principles used in the development of artificial breeding programs in domestic livestock were used to develop an artificial insemination program for koalas," Dr McGowan said.

Studies conducted by the team which were crucial to the overall success of the artificial insemination program included developing a technique for semen collection by means of an artificial vagina; developing methods for short and long-term storage of koala semen; and the characterisation of the koala oestrous cycle.

The researchers collaborated with leading endocrinologist Dr Ron Cox at Bioquest Ltd Sydney, who conducted hormone assays on blood samples collected by Mr Johnston and Mr O'Callaghan to document changes in hormone levels in the koala's oestrous cycle.
This work showed that ovulation in the koala was induced by mating.

Mr Johnston said that like the domestic cat, the koala required the physical act of mating to trigger the release of the egg from the follicle on the ovary.

The next step in the development of the program was to determine if ovulation could be triggered by injecting a hormone, similar to the hormone released in the koala following mating. Studies completed early this year at Lone Pine confirmed that a simple hormone injection could induce ovulation. Therefore, at the same time Robyn was artificially inseminated, she also received a hormone injection to trigger ovulation.

Mr Johnston said artificial breeding of koalas had a number of advantages for both their wild and captive conservation and management.

'Basic reproductive knowledge gained from developing the koala artificial insemination program increases our general understanding of the biology of this species and is fundamental for making informed decisions about koala management, both in captivity and the wild,' he said.

'For example, a knowledge of how koalas reproduce is just as important in preventing them from breeding as it is to helping them to reproduce. This issue is particularly important for island populations of koalas in southern Australia where over-population by the koala has caused severe defoliation.'

Mr O'Callaghan said artificial breeding also had major implications for the transfer of male genetic material both nationally land overseas. Shipment of liquid stored or frozen semen could help to eliminate the need for transporting male koalas internationally. This had obvious animal welfare and economic advantages.

"Although koalas are under no immediate threat of extinction, the development of an artificial insemination program based on the insemination of frozen stored semen may become a useful tool to help secure the future of this species, particularly if the present rate of habitat fragmentation and urbanisation continues," Mr O'Callaghan said.

Dr McGowan and Mr Johnston said an original objective for developing artificial insemination in the koala was to use the koala as a reproductive model for more endangered species.

With some refinement, it might now be possible to use artificial breeding techniques developed in the koala to help increase the reproductive success of critically endangered marsupial species, such as the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat.

The researchers stressed that despite this success, the long-term conservation of this and other species depended on preservation of suitable habitats.

For further information, contact Dr McGowan and Mr Johnston, telephone 07 3365 5719 or Mr O'Callaghan, telephone 07 3378 1366.