Wombats – A Last Chance to See

25 May

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What came to my mind first after I received an email from a friend asking me to contribute a piece concerning wombats? As all my creative juices or lack thereof oozed from my peanut-sized imagination, I remembered one important thing. DON’T PANIC.

Towel day approaches next week 25th May 2013, hoopy froods are writing, baking, sewing and building. After reading an interesting article concerning the land down under called Australia, written by non other than Mr. Douglas Adams I laughed until my insides hurt, read it again and thought to myself: “this piece describes how most of the world including us Aussies think when we look at ourselves. This is what our sunburnt dangerous island really is like.” It does tend to read like the writer had his tongue firmly planted in the side of his cheek with the biggest grin on his face, but I can assure you, it’s a more serious matter than I had ever imagined. So I followed great advice, I went and found my towel and opened my guide for advice whilst sipping away at a Pangalactic Gargleblaster, and yes, it is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped ’round a large gold brick.

My nickname at high school was sometimes an affectionate one whilst also at times a put down. I was as many teenagers for a time overweight and hence called Wombat. Not sure who first called me that. It still gets used today as my twitter name, many would know, Shano the Wombatjedi. I’m quite proud being associated with one of Australia’s most endangered species. Until today, I had no idea what diabolical straits the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat population was like. After a little research and reading I’ve decided to make this post a more serious one, I’ll leave the humour to someone with a more tongue in cheek ability, I wonder what Douglas Adams knew about our iconic popular native animal. Im certain he knew more than he let on.

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Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is never easy. Typically, it takes long-term commitment, amounting to lifetimes of hard work by dedicated scientists, managers and supporters. That is especially true if the species is a big animal with a low breeding rate, because such species respond slowly to efforts. No species of Australian wildlife better illustrates these points than the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat.

The Northern Hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) is the largest of Australia’s three wombat species. It is distinguished from the Southern Hairy-nosed wombat by its broad muzzle and black eye-rings as well as large size, and from the Common wombat by its silky grey fur, long ears and (of course) hairy nose. Northern Hairy-nosed wombats require deep sandy soils, in which to dig their burrows, and a year-round supply of grass, which is their primary food. These areas usually can be found in open eucalypt woodlands.

Wombats dig burrows that they rest in during daylight hours, but not all soils are suitable for burrows. At Epping Forest National Park (Scientific), Northern Hairy-nosed wombats construct their burrows in deep, sandy soils on levee banks deposited by a creek that no longer flows through the area. They will forage in areas of heavy clay soils adjacent to the sandy soils, but do not dig burrows in these areas, which become water-logged in the wet seasons. At Epping Forest National Park burrows are often associated with native bauhina trees, Lysiphyllum hookeri. This tree has a spreading growth form and it roots probably provide stability for the extensive burrows dug by Northern Hairy-nosed wombats.

A Northern Hairy-nosed wombat burrow can be spotted by the mound of dug-out sand at the entrance, which can be more than one metre high and several metres long. A ‘runway’ passes through the mound and leads to the burrow entrance. Wombats dig the burrow with their forepaws, and throw loose sand behind them with their forepaws and hind feet. They then walk backwards out of their burrow to bulldoze the sand clear. They will mark the entrance and mound near its burrow with dung, splashes of urine and scratches.

Early in the 20th century it was thought that the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat was extinct, after the disappearance of the only two populations then known (one near St George in southern Queensland, the other near Jerilderie in New South Wales). Then, in the 1930s, a small population was discovered in what is now Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland. This population was in decline, and by 1982 there may have been only 30 or so animals left. A capture and release program in the late 1980s and early 1990s suggested a population size of about 63. That study also showed that trapping to this extent caused significant disruption to the wombats, so a better census method was found. This involved collecting hairs on sticky tape at burrow entrances, and amplifying DNA to identify the individual wombats.

Monitoring the population suggests that the increase has been intermittent. The wombats live in a dry tropical environment, where most rain falls in an unreliable summer wet season. Several good wet seasons in succession may be needed for females to breed and for their young to survive to weaning. It might be only in periods like the last few years, with three excellent wet seasons in a row, that the population increases. Evidence from remote cameras and footprints suggests that many young have been born recently. Past declines were probably caused by competition for pasture from cattle and sheep, especially during drought. Northern Hairy-nosed wombats never venture far from their burrows to feed. When overgrazing removes all pasture from around their burrows, they starve.

The goal of management is to establish populations elsewhere. The search for a suitable place for a second population began about 20 years ago. A good site, now known as the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge, was eventually found and, happily, made available by the landholders. It was prepared by de-stocking, fencing, and digging artificial burrows. The first animals were transferred from Epping Forest in 2009. So far 15 have been moved there. They have settled well, and breeding was confirmed in March 2011. Unsurprisingly, there have been setbacks. Some animals died of unknown causes, and while three young have been born so far, only one survives. But all nine animals currently living there are in good condition and the population should grow.

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This information was given with permission courtesy of Christopher Johnson. Professor of wildlife conservation & ARC. Australia Professorial Fellow at university of Tasmania & written with help from Dr Alan Horsup, who leads the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat recovery project in the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. I’ve promised Christopher after this blog is posted I will also republish the whole piece he has written to show my gratitude for allowing me access to edit and reuse the article as I please.

Just so that not everything is doom and gloom I’ve decided to take certain liberties and include the post made by Douglas Adams that had me in stitches. I hope no one minds but its so well worth a read, I’ve copied and edited parts of it to suit this post.

“The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this. The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and
Sheep.

It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. But even the spiders won’t go near the sea. Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on), under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task.

Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the Odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that kills the most people each year is the common Wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground, in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs. The wombat kills people in two ways: First, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weight lifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (Road Trains) have hit them at high speed, with all 9 wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes a symmetrical launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described.

The second way the wombat kills people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a Wombat hole, the Wombat will feel the disturbance and think “Ho! My hole is collapsing!” at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the Wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die, and Australians don’t talk about it much.

Last chance to See by Douglas Adams.

Whilst I’m all for wildlife and forest conservation I sometimes think we look at it the wrong way. I get posts from many valued friends asking me to support the orangutans, pandas, and the majestic gorillas, I agree with them wholeheartedly and think its great, I also understand a lot of these species come from countries where there just isn’t the funding. I still think we should look in our our backyards or outback and take stock of what’s happening there first while never forgetting at the same time to give a little elsewhere as well. In the future I will be spending a little time getting to know some of our Aussie endangered species and will also try where I can to show a little support. But if you do choose a conservation plan why not look at the save the Humans campaign the dolphins are currently pursuing, I hear they like the fish.

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