SCIENTISTS working with a group of koalas at Longleat have discovered vital genetic clues which may help to secure the long-term survival of the Australian marsupial in the wild.

Research has shown up to a third of southern koalas suffer from a form of kidney disease while marsupials are at risk of cancers and a form of HIV.

All three disorders have a genetic link and now researchers from the University of Nottingham’s school of veterinary medicine and science, working with keepers at Longleat, believe they have identified a genetic mutation in the southern koala population which may help to protect against all three of them.

One of Longleat’s southern koalas, a female called Wilpena, died as a result of the kidney disease, known as oxalate nephrosis.

The research is being led Dr Rachael Tarlinton, associate professor of veterinary virology.

She said: “In the case of koalas, it’s hard to get information on disease, health and reproduction when you have to catch animals that are up 50 metre tall trees as they are in the wild.

“Much of our work can’t be done without animals held in zoological collections and, while Wilpena’s death was extremely sad, it does look as though the genetic information she has provided us with could provide vital clues to help save the population in the wild.

“Koalas only live in Australia and only eat eucalyptus leaves so the maintenance of natural habitat and disease resistance are vital to the future of this most popular of species.”

Dr Tarlinton and her team believe they have identified a DNA within the southern population that helps protect them from the diseases which have affected the northern koalas.

She also believes they have worked out the genetic mutation that causes the kidney disease which killed Wilpena.

Dr Tarlington added: “This has the potential to be a genuine scientific breakthrough which will allow us to design tests which could have taken us years to develop without the information gained from Wilpena.”

Dr Tarlinton is also hopeful the new information will help to develop cross-breeding programmes to eliminate the genetic mutation which causes kidney disease and also spreading the DNA which helps protect against the cancers and HIV.