Australia's northern hairy-nosed wombat is back from brink of extinction

Wombat road sign

Wombats Xing road sign- Photo courtesy Flickr user Jeff Boyd (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Good news stories about the environment are sometimes hard to find. Enter Australia’s northern hairy-nosed wombat, which has stepped back from the edge of extinction. Wombats are being relocated to Queensland's Powrunna State Forest, the third such site in the nation. The three locations have restricted access to their eucalypt forests which need ‘a specific ratio of sand and clay in the soil to support their burrows’.

The Queensland Minister for the Environment, Leanne Linard, was keen to trumpet the latest developments:

In a magnificent moment for conservation, the first northern hairy-nosed wombats have been released to explore their new home at Powrunna State Forest near St George in south-west Queensland.

Though it is the world’s rarest land mammal, its number has increased from 113 in 2003 to more than 400 in 2024. In the 1980s there were only 35 left in its remaining habitat, Queensland’s Epping Forest.

They are marsupials like the kangaroo and koala, with a pouch to nurture their undeveloped young. They can be 35 centimetres (14 inches) high, up to 1 metre (3.3 feet) long and can weigh up to 40 kilograms (88 lbs).

There are three species of wombat. The critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat has an estimated population of 400. The near-threatened southern hairy-nosed wombat 60,000 to 300,000. The common wombat (aka bare-nosed or coarse-haired wombat) is rated as least concerning with stable population numbers. No recent national population estimates are available. 2020 research conducted in Victoria estimated over 400,000.

This Midjourney AI-generated image of a decorative Wombat was shared by Mastodon user PaperCuts in Canada in 2023:

The wombats face numerous deadly threats including habitat loss for agricultural, land clearing, and urbanisation purposes; competition for food through introduced species such as cattle and sheep; feral predators such as wild dogs and cats; cars; disease; and climate change.

Collisions with cars and trucks are far too common. Jeff Boyd commented on his photo at the top of this post:

Sadly, every time we saw one of these signs, there was a dead wombat on the opposite side of the road.

Popular writer of both children's and adult books, Jackie French, has many stories about wombats and long-extinct species such as the giant diprotodon. She shared her delight in the news on X (formerly Twitter):

They dig extensive burrow systems, which became the focus of an Aussie myth during the devastating bushfires of 2019–2020. Popular memes at the time claimed that wombats were rescuing other animals in danger by herding them into their burrows.

Although this turned out to be misinformation, scientific research reported at The Conversation has revealed that the burrows may play an important role in the survival of other animals during fires:

So, even if wombats don’t shepherd wildlife into their homes, their burrows might act as “fire refuges” — providing vital shelter, food, and even drinking water during and after a bushfire.

This video summarises their findings:

Wombats have a backward pouch which helps when digging burrows with their large rodent-like teeth. Despite being herbivores, wombats’ powerful claws pose a threat to campers as Wallaroo Adventure Store gave this warning on its blog in 2023:

Wombats may appear cute and cuddly, but nobody wants to wake up with a hole in their tent. Unfortunately, hungry wombats are notorious for tearing through them in the middle of the night.

Wombat Every Day posts photos of wombats each day on the Bluesky social media platform. This one arrived for the winter solstice down under:

Screenshot of wombats: Bluesky user Wombat Every Day

Finally, a toilet fact. The wombat is the only animal that has cubic feces:

Certified Wombat Faeces

Certified Wombat Faeces – Photo courtesy Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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