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Tree Hugging Helps Cool Hot Koalas

Update Date: Jun 04, 2014 05:52 PM EDT

Koalas chill by hugging trees, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that these furry creatures cope with Australia's extreme heat by clinging against cooler tree trunks.

Lead researcher Andrew Krockenberger and his team from James Cook University in Australia made the discovery after examining the behavior of 30 koalas located at French Island, Victoria.

Previous studies reveal that many koalas perish during heat waves. 

"We know that about a quarter of the koalas in one population in New South Wales died during a heat wave in 2009," Professor Krockenberger said in a news release.

"Understanding the types of factors that can make some populations more resilient is important," he added, noting that koalas also pant and lick their fur to cool. However, constant licking to lower body temperature can cause dehydration.

"Access to these trees can save about half the water a koala would need to keep cool on a hot day," lead researcher Dr. Natalie Briscoe, from the University of Melbourne, said in a news release.

"Access to cool tree trunks would significantly reduce the amount of heat stress for koalas," she added.

"When we took the heat imagery it dramatically confirmed our idea that 'tree hugging' was an important cooling behavior in extreme heat," researcher Dr. Michael Kearney said in a statement.

"Cool tree trunks are likely to be an important microhabitat during hot weather for other tree dwelling species including primates, leopards, birds and invertebrates," added Kearney. "The availability of cooler trees should be considered when assessing habitat suitability under current and future climate scenarios."

"These findings underscore the importance of trees to koalas especially, in the context of climate extremes," Krockenberger said.

"In this study the coolest trees were acacias. They're not a koala food tree, but clearly they can be important when it comes to coping with the heat," he concluded.

The findings are published in the journal Biology Letters.

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