For millennia it’s been believed that koalas don’t drink water. Their name supposedly originates from the Dharug word ‘gula’, meaning ‘no water’. But these creatures are now dying of thirst. Getting to the root of this problem is Valentina Mella. With her research, she’s revolutionising our understanding of koalas.

Koalas spend their lives grazing in dense canopies. Picky eaters, they feed primarily on eucalyptus leaves which provide them with enough hydration. Recent research reveals that they also lap up droplets of rain dripping down tree trunks if they are thirsty. However, when Mella noticed koalas scaling down from the safety of their sanctuaries in search of water, she knew something was wrong.

Stunned by this odd behaviour, she began conducting field research in Gunnedah, New South Wales, a hot spot for climate-related koala deaths. Here, Mella found that the rapid rise in temperature was drying up eucalyptus leaves. As a result, many koalas were scouring the ground for alternative sources, rendering them vulnerable to dingos, dogs, and speeding cars. “Koalas are a flagged species for climate change,” Mella says. “They rely exclusively on trees for their survival.”

With the animals already facing threats of deforestation, disease, and wildfires, dehydration would only jeopardise them further. To keep them hydrated and out of harm's way, Mella installed drinking stations throughout the area. “Regular access to water could be one of the most important things for koalas in this climate crisis,” she says. The 12-month study found that more than half of the area’s koalas sought out the stations. The average drinking time was a lengthy 10 minutes, with some visiting the points multiple times a day in summer. “This study is a world-first to demonstrate that koalas do drink,” Mella says.

Her findings have been crucial in the conservation of these creatures, with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage implementing water supplementation strategies for the species. Mella and her team have also developed stations that are inaccessible to ground-dwelling predators. Shedding light on this critical issue, Mella is establishing a promising future for one the nation’s most prized creatures. “They are a very iconic species and we don’t want to lose them,” she says.