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Scientists discover koalas hydrate by licking tree trunks

This new understanding of how koalas drink could help with conservation efforts amid drought in Australia.

A female koala in You Yang Regional Park in Australia drinks water from tree trunk.
Echidna Walkabout and Koala Clancy Foundation

Koalas and trees are a match made in nature. Scientists have now found out the cuddly looking marsupials rely on their arboreal friends for more than food and lodging. Tree trunks are an important vehicle for koala hydration.

A team of scientists led by Valentina Mella of the University of Sydney studied how koalas drink rain water by licking it off tree trunks. "This significantly alters our understanding of how koalas gain water in the wild. It is very exciting," said Mella in a release this week.

The university posted a video showing an adult male koala licking a tree in the rain. 

The researchers published their findings over the weekend in the journal Ethology. The study examined dozens of reports of koala drinking behaviors as logged by ecologists and citizen scientists from 2006 to 2019. 

Scientists had previously thought that koalas got most of their water through eating leaves.   

Mella suggests the nocturnal nature of koalas may be why the tree-trunk licking has gone under the radar for so long. "Our observations probably only represent a minority of the drinking that normally takes place in trees during rainfall," she said.

The plight of koalas made news during the devastating Australian bushfires in 2019. A debatable report late last year said they were "functionally extinct" due to massive habitat losses and deaths from the fires, but the species has been under duress for quite some time.

As Australia grapples with continuing drought, scientists could use this new information on koala drinking habits to help protect the animals, some of which may benefit from access to supplemental water sources.

"We know koalas use trees for all their main needs, including feeding, sheltering and resting. This study shows that koalas rely on trees also to access free water and highlights the importance of retaining trees for the conservation of the species," said Mella.