Will koalas go ‘functionally extinct?' What does that mean, exactly?

Australian Koala Foundation uses term in recent news release

An 8-month-old koala joey eats a eucalyptus leaf in Sydney, Australia (Ian Waldie/Getty Images).
An 8-month-old koala joey eats a eucalyptus leaf in Sydney, Australia (Ian Waldie/Getty Images). (Getty Images)

The past few weeks have brought about a slew of headlines about the future of koalas, with many reports using the words “functionally extinct,” much to the alarm of koala lovers everywhere.

So what’s the deal with these cuddly-looking guys? We don’t have to say goodbye to them forever, do we?

Here’s what we can tell you because it all depends on who you ask. The Australian Koala Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to save koalas and their habitats, has called for more koala protections, saying in a news release that the group “believes koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia (and) thinks there are no more than 80,000 koalas” left on the continent.

Let's get back to the phrase "functionally extinct" in a minute. What do we make of that number: the 80,000 koalas?

A report on Mic.com says that although 80,000 might sound like a lot, it's quite small for an indigenous animal population.

The AKF predicts that koalas will not survive to reproduce for another generation, Mic said, and similarly, the World Wildlife Fund predicts an end for koalas by 2050, just 31 years from now.

That does sound serious.

But the issue isn’t so cut-and-dried, said New Scientist magazine, a weekly science and technology publication.

Yes, many koala populations are falling sharply due to habitat loss and global warming, the article said.

But don’t get too panicked because “there is no danger of koalas going extinct in Australia overall,” biologist Christine Adams-Hosking told the magazine.

Adams-Hosking, of the University of Queensland, has studied the animals’ plight extensively.

Still, “at the rate of habitat clearing that is going on, we are going to see increased local population extinctions,” she said.

Just a reminder: the University of Queensland is in Australia, so "local" doesn’t really mean local to us. Koalas only live in certain parts of Australia and they’re not found in the wild outside the continent.

In case you were wondering about that “functionally extinct” term, New Scientist said it can be “used in several different senses.” It can mean the population has declined “to the point where it can no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem” or to where the population is no longer viable, or to a stage where inbreeding is threatening the population’s viability, Adams-Hosking said.

In this case, it should be noted, the head of the AKF, Deborah Tabart, clarified her use of the term.

“This is a scientific term to describe ‘beyond the point of recovery,’” she wrote in a blog post.

Adams-Hosking authored a piece of her own, which can be found on Salon.com, addressing her take on the koala situation.

It seems difficult to get a firm answer on what lies ahead for the future of koalas. Maybe you'll dig into the data from the AKF and you'll be convinced of the group's stance. Maybe the article from the scientist will make you dig into the facts and figures on your own. Either way, koala numbers are certainly declining, and the future does sound uncertain.

If you feel motivated to help, you could consider giving to a group such as the World Wildlife Fund. Learn more on where that organization stands and see how it uses its donations to help the cause.

About the Author:

Michelle is the Managing Editor of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which writes for all of the company's news websites.