Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Radar Uncovers Wombat Warrens

Very little is known about the burrowing habits of the southern hairy-nosed wombat, but now researchers from the University of Adelaide have used ground-penetrating radar to reveal the inner workings of their warrens.

“A major problem we are grappling with is understanding just how many wombats there are and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing,” said PhD candidate Michael Swinbourne.

“At the moment we use satellite imagery to count the warrens and then use that information to estimate the numbers of wombats living inside. This method isn’t perfect because we don’t know much about how wombats share their warrens.”

Ground-penetrating radar allowed Swinbourne to map warrens built underneath thick layers of hard limestone – which occurs throughout much of the wombat’s range. He found that these differ substantially to soil warrens, with an extensive series of tunnels and chambers rather than simply a discrete tunnel underground.

“These findings have important implications for how we estimate the numbers of wombats, and also how we think about the social structure of a wombat colony. They might be more social than we previously thought,” Swinbourne says.

Wombats are considered an agricultural pest because their burrowing activity can cause damage to farm infrastructure and equipment as well as crops. Lessening the southern hairy-nosed wombat’s impact on agriculture on one hand, while conserving it on the other, continues to be a significant challenge for conservationists.

The research has been published in Wildlife Research (www.tinyurl.com/jt9qrfo).