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The Elusive Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat

By the 1980s there were as few as 40 individual northern hairy-nosed wombats.

By the 1980s there were as few as 40 individual northern hairy-nosed wombats. Credit: Alan Horsup

By Lauren White & Jeremy Austin

Creative sampling and DNA techniques have allowed scientists to keep track of one of Australia’s most endangered and elusive marsupials.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat is an elusive and critically endangered marsupial. Despite their large size, northern hairy-nosed wombats are surprisingly difficult to see and count reliably. They live in large underground burrow systems that are hundreds of metres long, with multiple entrances and many passageways, and only emerge for a few hours each night.

Sighting one is therefore difficult. Sighting enough to get an accurate population count is almost impossible.

To figure out how many wombats are left, we have been using an unusual and somewhat low-tech technique – sticky tape placed across burrow entrances – to collect wombat hair for DNA analysis. This non-invasive sampling allows us to identify individual wombats and estimate population size without ever having to actually see or catch one.

Conserving a Species

Before European arrival, the species is thought to have been widely distributed in eastern Australia, from southern NSW to central Queensland. However, loss of habitat, competition with grazing stock and a string of droughts in the 1900s saw the species contract to just a single surviving population at Epping Forest in central Queensland. By the 1980s their numbers were as low as 40 individuals. Without intervention the species faced almost certain extinction.

To save northern hairy-nosed wombats from extinction, the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.