Studying the Southern hairy-nosed wombat

Story by Graeme Finlayson, Bush Heritage. Photo by David Taggart, Adelaide University.

Researchers from Bush Heritage Australia and the University of Adelaide are planning to use a combination of remote sensing techniques and genetics to try and understand more about the Southern hairy-nosed wombat and are calling on landholders to report sightings.

The lifestyle of the wombat, as an extreme water and energy conservation species, makes them difficult to study. They spend long periods of time below the ground in extensive burrow and warren networks, with more than 90 per cent of the population found on private land.

Despite this, the species forms an important part of the landscape in which it occurs, providing a range of ecosystem services, through their digging and semi-fossorial lifestyle, like the cycling of soil nutrient and the provision of burrows that can provide shelter for a huge array of different animals from geckos to bettongs and rock wallabies.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats are unusual in that their warrens can be observed from satellites, making it possible to identify where the entire wombat population resides.  Of particular interest are wombats at the periphery of their distribution where anecdotal reports in recent years, and from recent observations on Bon Bon Station, suggest the species has increased in activity and may be expanding in distribution. This is thought to be due to the decline in European rabbits across recent decades following the release of the rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) virus.

Although they are typically sedentary and only occupy a small home range around their preferred warrens, SHN Wombats are an important species in the rangelands and a significant grazer, with a diet dominated by native grasses and forbs.  It is also a species believed to be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of changing climate and associated changes to pasture composition.

Dr Finlayson said he hoped the study would determine the extent of the southern hairy-nosed wombat distribution, and from scat collections, the genetic health of outlying colonies, their relationships to surrounding populations, and how their diet varies seasonally and during drought as well as overlap with other grazing species in their range.

For information about the study or to report sightings of SHN wombats on your property, please contact Dr Graeme Finlayson (Graeme.Finlayson@bushheritage.org.au) or Dr David Taggart (David.Taggart@adelaide.edu.au