Lesson of the Day: ‘Australia Gears Up for the Great Koala Count, Using Drones, Droppings and Dogs’

Lesson of the Day: ‘Australia Gears Up for the Great Koala Count, Using Drones, Droppings and Dogs’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “Australia Gears Up for the Great Koala Count, Using Drones, Droppings and Dogs” by Yan Zhuang

An estimated 61,000 koalas were killed, injured or displaced during last summer’s wildfires, according to a recent study. And even before that, many had lost their habitats to land clearing. In November, the Australian government announced that it would commit 2 million Australian dollars ($1.5 million) to fund a nationwide count of the animals.

In this lesson, you will learn about the methods officials will use to conduct an accurate count and why they believe it is so urgent. Then, you will participate in a citizen science project to help count another species on land or in the sea.

What do you know about koalas? Test your knowledge with this short quiz:

1. Koalas are a type of:

a) bear
b) marsupial
c) rodent

2. What are some of the key features of a koala’s anatomy?

3. What do koalas eat?

4. How many hours a day do koalas sleep?

5. Where do koalas live? What is their habitat like?

Now, check your answers by watching the four-minute video from National Geographic below. As you watch, correct or fill in any of the answers you didn’t know.

What questions do you still have about koalas after watching the video?

Read the article and answer the following questions:

1. How have koala numbers changed over time? Why do some scientists doubt the accuracy of some recent counts and the narratives associated with them?

2. What are some of the factors that have negatively affected the koala habitat?

3. Why do scientists, conservationists and Australian officials want an accurate count of koalas in the region?

4. According to Desley Whisson, a wildlife ecologist, what are some of the things that make counting koalas so difficult? What methods and tools will scientists use in hopes of having a more accurate count?

5. What was the goal of the open letter sent by conservation groups?

6. Using evidence from the article, explain what Rebecca Keeble, Oceania regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, meant when she said, “Counting koalas is like counting the deck chairs on the Titanic as it sinks.”

While you might not be able to help with the koala count, there are other species that scientists are tracking, and they need help from everyday people. Choose one of these citizen science projects to contribute to and then reflect on your experience:

  • Chimp & See: Participate in the Cultured Chimpanzee at the Pan African Programme to classify monkeys, prosimians or hoofed animals. You will be helping scientists to better understand the ecological and evolutionary drivers that have contributed to the behavioral and cultural diversity of chimpanzees.

  • Beluga Bits: Look closely at underwater photos of wild beluga whales to identify their age, sex and group size. This helps researchers studying the Churchill River in Manitoba, Canada, recognize beluga that return to the same area over multiple years.

  • Snapshot Grumeti: You will look at images captured at the Singita Grumeti game reserve and classify all the different animals you see. Your work will help provide a window into the dynamics of Africa’s most elusive wildlife species.

  • Weddell Seal Count: Help scientists determine if Antarctic Weddell seals are threatened by fishing, climate change or something else. Your contributions will assist scientists in generating accurate abundance estimates of Weddell seals and monitoring the local ecosystem.

Then, reflect on what you learned from the project, either in writing or with a partner in class:

  • What did you observe in your citizen science project?

  • In what ways were the methods you used in your project similar to those that will be used in the koala count? How were they different?

  • What connections can you make between the preservation concerns around koalas to those of the species that you studied in your project?

  • What further questions do you have about the species you counted?

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