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Unsettling times for the second colony

Third mother with pouch young.  Photo: Queensland Government

Third mother with pouch young. Photo: Queensland Government

In early 2012 there was excitement over the discovery of a third pouch young for the second northern hairy-nosed wombat colony at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge. But the excitement was not to last, as the third pouch young failed to complete its pouch development stage. Several months shy of the joeys expected emergence date (predicted as around September) the mother exited her burrow without a pouch young. Rangers waited expectantly for a joey to emerge from the burrow, assuming its development stage may have been miscalculated. Enough time has since passed and the mother has moved on from her burrow, indicating that there is no longer a third joey.

There was also the unfortunate loss of an adult male in July. Cause of death was due to infection following fly strike of existing scratches obtained through territorial fighting with another wombat. As a result of his weakened state he contracted pneumonia. The unseasonal wet weather was thought to have contributed to his illness.

While these deaths are significant to the small colony, they are a harsh reality of nature and are providing rangers with new information that will assist with the future management of this species.

Baby boom at Epping Forest National Park

Mother and joey at Epping Forest National Park

Mother and joey at Epping Forest National Park

The high rainfall in recent wet seasons has resulted in lush pastures and contributed to a positive response in the northern hairy-nosed wombat population.

Remote cameras set up at burrows on Epping Forest National Park (Scientific) have provided evidence of a number of new births. The cameras regularly capture footage of females with large pouches, females with young-at-foot, or juveniles. This growth in the population at Epping Forest National Park (Scientific) is exactly the result that we need while we are establishing the new population at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge.

How did the wombats fare in the floods?

Northern hairy-nosed wombat outside burrow. Photo: Queensland Government

Northern hairy-nosed wombat outside burrow. Photo: Queensland Government

Fortunately, the floods that devastated much of Queensland in recent years have not affected the wombats. In March 2010, flood waters from the Balonne River hit St George, but did not enter the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge.

In January 2011, the Belyando River broke its banks and flooded Fox Creek beside Epping Forest National Park (Scientific). A small amount of water entered the park, but did not reach any of the habitat that is used by the wombats. At St George, the flood waters did not peak at 14 metres as predicted, and the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge was unaffected.

In February 2012, the Balonne and Maranoa Rivers flooded once again and the wombat colony at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge remained unaffected.

A very productive female

Northern hairy-nosed wombats are uniform in colour and individuals are difficult to identify, unless they have distinctive marks such as ear nicks or scars. In 1999, DES staff trapped and ear-tagged 40 northern hairy-nosed wombats at Epping Forest National Park as part of a research program. Males had small round tags attached to their right ear and females had similar tags attached to their left ear. Many of these wombats are still recorded today on remote infra-red cameras set at burrows and water stations to monitor wombat behavioural and reproductive patterns.

At Burrow 270 on Epping Forest NP, an ear-tagged female has been monitored using remote cameras almost continuously since 2011. Having been tagged in 1999 when she was an adult (therefore at least 3 years old), she is now at least 22 years old. Most kangaroos do not live past 10-12 years old in the wild. However, the very conservative lifestyle of wombats and the protection afforded by their burrowing lifestyle allows them to live to at least 30 years in the wild. This tagged female at Burrow 270 is therefore not yet ‘old’.

This female has been recorded ‘on film’ at Burrow 270 in most of the months that a camera has been set there. Incredibly, in that time she has produced four offspring. While it is impossible to know if all her offspring have survived to adulthood, there are photos of this female with three of her four offspring as large young-at-foot, and photos of larger juveniles at Burrow 270 without the tagged female.

Based on the absence of predators at Epping Forest NP, the rapidly growing population, and the very low incidence of wombat carcasses found, it is believed that mortality rates are very low and that most juvenile wombats survive to adulthood. If the tagged female at Burrow 270 is typical of other females on the park, these camera observations help explain why the population is growing so fast.

Epping Forest National Park

Newly discovered and numbered burrow B481 in deep sand at Epping Forest National Park, amongst a lush green pasture of native grasses and forbs. Photo: Queensland GovernmentDES

Newly discovered and numbered burrow B481 in deep sand at Epping Forest National Park, amongst a lush green pasture of native grasses and forbs. Photo: Queensland GovernmentDES

The wet season has finally made an appearance at Epping Forest National Park. After lower than normal rainfall in both December and January, the park received 90 mm of rain in February, a bit less than average. However, the generally dry conditions do not seem to have reduced the levels of reproductive activity which are still high, as confirmed by remote infra-red cameras located at wombat burrows and water troughs.

Richard Underwood Nature Refuge

The RUNR driveway underwater and looking very green. Photo: Queensland Government

The RUNR driveway underwater and looking very green. Photo: Queensland Government

J4, looking very healthy, venturing out in the late afternoon. Photo: Queensland Government

J4, looking very healthy, venturing out in the late afternoon. Photo: Queensland Government

It is of no surprise that summer in south western Queensland has been hot, with daytime temperatures regularly above 40OC and edging past 43OC on a number of occasions. It’s not the most comfortable conditions for the caretakers or the wombats, but it is summer. When it’s hot, wombats spend more time underground in the cooler temperatures of their burrows.

Following on from the rains in October there was another 40mm in early February and the February caretakers found a small lake in front of the barracks on their arrival. This was followed up by more storms in mid-February with a further 27mm.

Due to the summer rains the RUNR is currently looking very green with plenty of grass for the wombats.

The latest arrival to RUNR, J4 (joey) has been busy exploring the refuge. J4, who has now been out of the pouch since June 2017, has been up to some mischief and collected some scars on both sides of its abdomen.  J4 was also recorded exploring during the daylight hours by the remote cameras. J4 is in good health and has grown over the summer months and is now a sub-adult, making it difficult to identify J4 from the other wombats.  There are plans to undertake genetic hair sampling in 2019, when hopefully we will learn the gender of J4.

Conservation status change of the northern hairy nosed wombat

On 15 February 2018, the federal Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE) upgraded the conservation status of the NHW from Endangered to Critically Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC). The upgrade to Critically Endangered does not indicate a lack of success in ongoing conservation efforts of the species. The change occurred as part of a process by DoEE, State and Territory conservation agencies to align the categories for threatened species in Australia with those used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Last updated
13 April 2018