A bite on the bum and a kick in the face: How female southern hairy-nosed wombats flirt

By Angela Heathcote 11 May 2018
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Understanding the mating and courtship behaviours of our most endangered wombats could save them from extinction, researchers say.

A NEW STUDY conducted by the University of Queensland has revealed the bizarre courtship and mating habits of the southern hairy-nosed wombat, which researchers say could help the conservation of their more endangered cousins in the north.

Using indoor and outdoor infrared cameras, the researchers were able to record never-before-seen courtship and mating behaviours between male and female southern wombats as it occurs within their burrows.

These observations and the urine samples taken throughout the study revealed that female southern wombats become more active when they’re ready to mate.

“We found that when captive female southern hairy-nosed wombats are ready to mate they tended to urinate less frequently and are more aggressive towards males – biting them on the bum or kicking them in the face” lead author of the study Alyce Swinbourne told Australian Geographic.

According to Alyce, collecting the data was no easy feat.

“I had to train the females to urinate on demand. This was interesting as I first had to understand their natural urination behaviour. This involved me being up early in the morning or being quick on my feet if they didn’t want me in their enclosure,” she said.

“The second biggest challenge was making sure the cameras were all in working order and we were getting the footage the wombats. I’d review the footage from early in the morning only to find a spider was sitting in the middle of the lens for three hours or the wombats had used the light poles in their yards as a scratching post.”

For Alyce, the increased level of activity in the female and the decreased volume of urine just before she is ready to mate was the most interesting finding.

“This research was conducted to improve captive breeding of wombats and to come away with two very simple observable and measurable markers – pacing and decreased urine output – means that captive managers can potentially use them to monitor female’s cycles in captivity.”

Experts predict that the southern hairy-nose could become extinct within the next 15 years without the support of captive breeding programs, but their cousins up north are in an even worse predicament.

Northern hairy-nosed wombats, the largest species of wombat, are confined to a section of Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland. Like the southern hairy-nose, conflict with humans is one of the biggest challenges; however populations of the northern wombats are much more depleted.

The relative similarities between the two species means that the researchers of this most recent study are able to use the findings to create a model to develop assisted reproductive technologies not  only for the southern wombats, but also the northern wombats.  

The research is published in Reproduction, Fertility and Development by CSIRO Publishing.