Mapping underground to better understand the shy and skittish wombat
Researchers have deployed the latest in ground penetrating radar (GPR) technology to map out burrows belonging to one of the world’s rarest and notoriously shy mammals, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. By exploring these large underground homes, researchers hope to better understand this critically endangered species.
With an estimated total of around 315 individuals remaining, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is rarer than the Giant Panda (1,864 individuals) and the Sumatran Tiger (400 individuals). The last natural stronghold for the species is at Epping Forest National Park (Scientific) (EFNP) in central Queensland, while a second population was established by Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science (DES) in 2009 at the 130-hectare Richard Underwood Nature Refuge (RUNR) in the south-west of the state.
Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats are known to be sedentary, only emerging from their burrows for up to six hours a night to forage for food. The wombat’s shy and skittish behaviour, makes it difficult for researchers to study the species and develop measures that could help ensure their survival.
Researchers from Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), The Wombat Foundation (TWF) and DES are hoping to reduce the knowledge deficit on the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat by using radar technology to explore the wombat’s 3.5-metre-deep burrows. A team of four spent three days in late August, deploying a revolutionary GPR system called Stream DP by Subsurface Mapping Solutions at RUNR. The system used radar pulses to develop a real-time 3D mapping of burrows to compare those naturally dug by the wombats and ‘starter’ burrows that were created by DES to provide a haven and reduce the physical stress of digging burrows when translocated to a new site.
To date, most of our understanding of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat comes from research conducted at Epping Forest. However, the RUNR population provides an opportunity to broaden our knowledge from a different site. The team hopes the subsurface study will reveal any differences between burrow structure at both sites, potentially due to differences in soil and vegetation. This information may also be able to assist future habitat searches and inform the design of ‘starter’ burrows during future translocations such as the establishment of a third population at Powrunna State Forest, west of St George.
Andy Howe, AWC Senior Field Ecologist, said conducting this research will allow for better understanding of the wombats and the habitat conditions required for successful living.
“We’re peering into Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat burrows in a way that no human has been able to before,” said Andy. “A similar study was conducted in 2015 on the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat, however the older GPR technology was unable to map out the burrows in real time or pick up finer details of the structure.”
“The Stream DP has enabled us to develop the most detailed subterranean mapping of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat burrows to date, and in turn, equipped us with knowledge that will be used to aid in the conservation of the critically endangered species.”
The latest GPR study is part of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat Recovery Action Plan developed as part of the DES Threatened Species Program 2020-2040. The purpose of the plan is to identify the priority actions required to recover the species.
Leanne Brosnan, Director of TWF said:
“This is an incredibly exciting project – using cutting edge technology to reveal ancient wombat wisdom. It will allow us to take the first-ever behind-the-scenes peek into their private digs (at RUNR) and give us new and invaluable insight into their elusive existence.”
“The Wombat Foundation are delighted to be able to fund this groundbreaking research project.”
AWC and TWF are currently analysing the research and expect results from the ground penetrating radar project to be complete by November 2023.
Species profile: Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is listed as critically endangered, with an estimated population of 315 individuals. The species is considered one of the rarest mammals in Australia.
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is the largest burrowing mammal in the world and their burrows can be up to 90 metres long.
Historical records indicate that the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat could once be found living in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The decline in Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats has been associated with the clearing of their preferred open eucalypt woodland habitat for grazing and competition with livestock and rabbits, and predation. By 1982, the species had retracted to the Epping Forest population.
In 2009, a second colony of the rare wombat was established at RUNR by the Queensland Government and earlier this year they announced a third site would be established at Powrunna State Forest, in partnership with the Gunggari Native Title Aboriginal Corporation and Gunggari Native Title Holders.
Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats have a distinctive appearance with a broad nose, pointy ears, soft greyish fur and faint black eye patches. They can live to at least 30 years of age, spending most of their time underground and emerging at night to feed on grasses and sedges. ‘Yaminon,’ is the only recorded Indigenous name for these wombats, from an area near St George.
For more information on the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat, visit The Wombat Foundation’s website.
Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is a global leader in conservation, providing hope to Australia’s wildlife with a science-informed, land management partnership model that delivers high impact results. AWC is a national leader in landscape scale conservation land management, reintroductions of threatened species and the establishment of feral predator-free areas.
The Wombat Foundation (TWF) is the only organisation dedicated exclusively to the conservation of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat and our vision is to see the species living extensively across its former range.