ABSTRACT

Cost-effective surveys of low density koala populations are challenging, but technological developments in the acoustics field offer great potential for landscape-scale surveys and monitoring. We assessed passive acoustic recording coupled with automated call identification as a survey method for koalas Phascolarctos cinereus. Surveys targeted areas of previously known koala activity based on scat surveys in southern forests of New South Wales where a low density of koalas is suspected. We set 24 Song Meters to record at night over a two week period (~3,696 hours) in the koala breeding season (October/November) in Murrah Flora Reserve. Recordings were scanned by a koala call recogniser and “matches” were manually verified. Across the 24 sites, 522 validated koala bellows were recorded at 21 sites (87.5 % detection rate). Three environmental variables had most influence on detection probability of koalas, including nightly rainfall (-ve), nightly temperature (-ve) and topographic position (lower on ridges). Calling activity peaked at midnight. Sustained site occupancy, at least in the short-term, was apparent as under optimal conditions (no rain) koalas were recorded, on average, for > 50 % of survey nights rather than for just a few nights. We suggest that only a modest survey effort (4–5 nights) in the breeding season, on nights with < 3 mm of rain, is required to achieve 90–95 % probability of koala call detection in an area of low koala density. Comparison with scat surveys at the same sites revealed that detection rates were more than three times greater with acoustic surveys. Technological advances will continue to provide improvements for wildlife survey, and perhaps most importantly, for collecting much needed long-term data to assess trends in occupancy or other population attributes over time.

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