Koalas are not exactly nature's hardiest creatures. Adapted to feed on the leaves of just two dozen types of trees, which barely provide adequate nutrition, the koalas also lack any real defensive tools or skills. While not officially endangered, koalas are dropping dead across Australia, and now scientists warns that global warming will soon make matters much worse.

According to Professor Ian Hume of Sydney University and Dr. Dan Lunney of the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change, global warming is already lowering the nutritional value of eucalyptus leaves, while also causing the trees to absorb more toxins from the ground. Not only is this slowly poisoning the koalas, it is cutting their birth rates and forcing them out of trees in search of more food, where they become easy prey to dogs and other predators.

The situation is bad enough in south-east Queensland -- where koala numbers have dropped from 25,000 to just 4,000 in the last 10 years -- that conservationists have asked the Australian government to declare the population there as critically endangered.

Examinations of expired koalas in Queensland found that they died of starvation, a situation that many fear could soon become more typical across Australia.

It's the cute little critters like this that tend to get noticed when they become endangered, so maybe this will help support efforts to cut greenhouse gases before it's too late. Or not. We'll just have to wait and see.

Story by John Platt. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Report: Global warming poisoning koalas
Cuddly Aussie species being harmed by climate change.