Canberra, Australia Koalas are threatened by the rising level of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere because it saps nutrients from the eucalyptus leaves they feed on, a researcher said Wednesday.
Ian Hume, emeritus professor of biology at Sydney University, said he and his researchers also found that the amount of toxicity in the leaves of eucalyptus saplings rose when the level of carbon dioxide within a greenhouse was increased.
Hume presented his research on the effects of carbon dioxide on eucalyptus leaves to the Australian Academy of Science on Wednesday.
The researchers found that carbon dioxide in eucalyptus leaves affects the balance of nutrients and "anti-nutrients" - substances that are either toxic or interfere with the digestion of nutrients.
An increase in carbon dioxide favors the trees' production of carbon-based anti-nutrients over nutrients, so leaves can become toxic to koalas, Hume said.
Some eucalyptus species may have high protein content, but anti-nutrients, such as tannins, bind the protein so it cannot be digested by koalas.
Hume estimated that current levels of global carbon dioxide emissions would result in a noticeable reduction in Australia's koala population in 50 years due to a lack of palatable leaves.
Out of more than 600 eucalyptus species in Australia, koalas will only eat the leaves of about 25, Hume said. Changing the toxicity levels in the trees could further reduce the varieties that koalas find palatable, he said.