Researchers have attached Fitbit heart rate monitors to koalas to gauge the impact of human interference on the animals and inform future research methods.

The team from Flinders University in Adelaide has also been using infrared cameras and acoustic equipment in the burrows of little penguins.

They say the number of people shining torches and putting their hands into burrows has alarmed them.

In a recently published study, the scientists evaluated the reaction of koalas to drones flying nearby.

Drones are now considered a vital conservation tool in capturing the distribution and abundance of koalas, particularly in remote and inaccessible areas — and the Flinders University study is the first to measure how the animals respond to them.

Behavioural ecologist Diane Colombelli-Négrel said the study monitored 34 koalas at the Cleland Wildlife Park in the Adelaide Hills, 16 of which were fitted with exercise heart rate monitors.

Analysis of the data from the monitors and cameras on the drones showed their presence had very little impact on the koalas.

"They showed an increase in vigilance but no increase in heart rate and no increase in breathing rate," Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

She said the increased vigilance was momentary, with the koalas becoming a little more upright, pricking their ears, or raising their heads when they noticed the presence of the drones.

The drones were not flown within 15 metres of any of the animals.

Dr Colombelli-Négrel said while this research involved koalas in a wildlife park, it did indicate that the drones used to monitor wild koala populations were unlikely to have a negative impact on the animals.

South Australia's koala population is now estimated to have recovered to about 650,000 animals following the 2019–2020 Kangaroo Island and Adelaide Hills bushfires.

However, the iconic animals have been declared endangered in the eastern states due to disease, habitat fragmentation, and predation. 

Increase in humans disturbing little penguins

Dr Colombelli-Négrel and citizen scientists have also been using acoustic software and infrared cameras to monitor the fragile little penguin population on Granite Island, near Victor Harbor.

Researchers from Flinders University are shocked at how often little penguins on Granite Island are disturbed in their burrows.()

"Again, we use a combination of techniques," Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

"In this case, we used cameras that record sound and video and also some acoustic monitoring, so we get an idea of the disturbance of the activity on the penguins."

Dr Colombelli-Négrel said she was shocked by the number of people who were recorded shining their torches into the burrows of the little penguins or putting their hands inside to take a photograph.

She said the issue had existed for some time, but the number of disturbances for each remaining penguin had increased over the past few years as the number of birds had declined.

"We have seen in the past four years a really significant increase in those events," she said.

"[We know] that it happens, but seeing it happen so many times on the camera is a different thing."

She said penguins in one burrow were disturbed several times every night, which meant they were not getting adequate rest before heading out for a day at sea.

Video and audio monitoring of little penguins shows humans are having an impact.()

"We may have to think of ways to hide those birds," she said.

"It can be very demanding for those particular birds."

There was also a recurring problem of some of the cameras being stolen from the burrows, leading to a loss of data.

Dr Colombelli-Négrel has previously called for the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service to restrict access to the island to help relieve the stress on the remaining penguins.


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