Northern hairy-nosed wombat
Reintroduction and recovery plans are allowing the northern hairy-nosed wombat to dig its way back from near extinction
Carolyn is a science journalist and former Online Editor at Australian Geographic.
AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION STATUS (EPBC Act)
The northern hairy-nosed wombat is confined to a section of Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland, with a second population developing in Richard Underwood Nature Refuge near St George. Fossil evidence shows the species once ranged from central NSW to Port Douglas in northern QLD.
Northern hairy-nosed wombat, Queensland hairy-nosed wombat
Sandy soil close to trees offers the ideal ground for the wombats to dig burrows. Wombat burrows can be up to 3.5 metres underground, 20m long and half a metre wide. A year-round supply of native grasses also dictates where the wombat resides.
The largest of wombat species, the northern hairy-nosed wombat can grow up to a metre long and weigh 40kg. The northern hairy-nosed wombat has longer, more pointed ears than the common wombat, and also has a wider muzzle and softer fur. Despite its cumbersome appearance, the species can reach an impressive speed of 40km/h over a short distance.
It is predicted that the species has an average lifespan of 20 years. Females give birth to one joey at a time, which is generally between November and April. Joeys stay in the pouch for six to nine months before making their foraging debut during the summer months once they are a year old.
Burrows are shared, especially between females, and wombats will dwell in more than one burrow. During hot weather, other animals may rest in the wombat burrows, such as swamp wallabies and goannas.
Wombats are nocturnal and only leave the burrow to feed when conditions are ideal. During the winter dry season, the species may be active for up to six hours; in summer, only two hours is necessary due to a larger amount of food.
Around 12 different grass species make up the wombats’ diet. Leaves provide the them with the required nutrition, and wombats are usually able to maintain their condition even in droughts. The species’ teeth continue to grow throughout its life at the same rate they are worn down.
Threats to the northern hairy-nosed wombat
Previously, the main threat to the northern hairy-nosed wombat was food shortage due to overgrazing by livestock. The effects of drought and predation by dingoes may also have contributed to the species’ demise. In response to the death of ten wombats to dingoes in 2000 and 2001, a dingo-proof fence has since been constructed around the wombats’ habitat in Epping National Park.
The wombat population size is small and confined to a limited area, which results in a lack of genetic variation. In the 2010 census, the Epping National park population was estimated at 163 wombats in the community. Inbreeding is a concern, and diseases such as mange and toxoplasmosis also pose a threat to the species.
Epping National Park is slowly being invaded by the introduced species of buffel grass. Growing in dense clumps that are difficult to control, buffel grass increases the risk of wildfire and is also taking over wombat feeding areas.
Recovery plans for the Northern hairy-nosed wombat
Recovery plans for the species have been in place since 1992. The 2004-2008 Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat Recovery Plan had ambitious goals which were broken down into five, 10 and 50-year plans to ensure the sustainability of the species.
Reducing the rate of extinction to less than one per cent over 100 years was the main goal for the 50-year plan. This would be achieved by establishing additional populations in various sites.
In 2008, it was announced that the mining company Glencore (formerly Xstrata) would sponsor a reintroduction project to translocate northern hairy-nosed wombats to Richard Underwood Nature Refuge, near St George. Translocation began in 2009 and the population is being closely monitored.