Wombat Research and Conservation

To study the ecology, reproduction, assisted breeding and genetics of hairy-nosed wombats in Australia

 

The darkness of night has descended and everyone is primed and ready to go. Which means it's once again time to forego sleep in order to discover more about a cryptic, ground dwelling creature of the Australian bush...the southern hairy-nosed wombat, Lasiorhinus latifrons.

 

For more than 15 years, Conservation Ark Principle Scientist, Dr David Taggart and his team have been leaving the comfort of their shearing shed base to head out into the dark and study populations of southern hairy-nosed wombats to learn more about their life history, biology and behaviour.

 

Over the years a huge amount of information has been collected about wombats and this was recently recognized when the project won the 2009 ARAZPA research award. The award was given in recognition of the projects contribution to improving knowledge about wildlife, as well as contributing to conservation.

 

The first challenge for David Taggart's research team was to develop capture and survey methods. These techniques require a high level of devotion and fitness. They involve driving around a paddock at night on the back of a ute with a spotlight until animals are found, then firing a gunshot over their heads using the sound waves to stun the animals, before staff sprint across the uneven ground with nets to capture the animal - being careful not to fall down one of the wombat burrows themselves.

 

Using these capture methods, populations have been monitored regularly and information has been collected on burrow usage, timing of breeding, growth and development of young, collection and analysis of sperm, super-ovulation, effects of inbreeding on fertility, population genetics, nutrition and anti-oxidant levels, as well as the impacts of an outbreak of mange on populations. More than a dozen students have worked on parts of this long-term project, and all have left with memories of interesting times in the field and a greater passion for helping our wildlife to survive in the face of increasing threats.

 

Southern hairy-nosed wombats were once common in SA, but populations are now fragmented due to agriculture, changes in land management practices and a combination of drought and disease. The studies undertaken by Conservation Ark have helped state government develop management plans for the species and are helping develop ways for farmers and wombats to live together. They have also trialed treatments for mange, a parasite infecting the skin of wombats which can debilitate animals leading to their deaths when conditions become tough, e.g. in drought.

 

The southern hairy-nosed wombat is also the sister species of the critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat,Lasiorhinus krefftii, which is found in a single national park in Queensland where less than 100 animals are now found. So knowledge gained about the southern hairy-nosed wombat can help guide the conservation actions for the northern hairy-nosed wombat.

 

WAZA Conservation Project 09013 is implemented by Conservation Ark - Royal Zoological Society of South Australia and supported by the Dibben Family, University of Adelaide, Monash University, Melbourne University, Department for Environment and Heritage.

 

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