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Australian Wombats: Underground Burrow Networks Revealed [VIDEO]

Feb 05, 2016 12:48 PM EST
A southern hairy-nosed wombat on its burrow in Australia's Murraylands.
(Photo : David Taggart, University of Adelaide)

The underground homes of southern hairy-nosed wombats have been explored for the first time by researchers from the University of Adelaide using ground-penetrating radar. Until now, not much was known about the connected tunnels and burrows of Australia's emblematic wombats.

The results may be positively privacy-eliminating for the large marsupials. 

"A major problem we are grappling with is understanding just how many wombats there are and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing," Michael Swinbourne, a Ph.D. candidate in the University's School of Biological Sciences, said in a news release.

"At the moment we use satellite imagery to count the warrens and then use that information to estimate the numbers of wombats living inside," he added. "This method isn't perfect because we don't know much about how wombats share their warrens."

Southern hairy-nosed wombats typically weigh more than 20 kilograms and can live for 30 years. Using ground-penetrating radar, Swinbourne and his team were able to map warrens, or a network of interconnected burrows, built underneath thick layers of hard limestone, which occurs throughout much of the wombat's range.

"The aim of this project was to map the extent of wombat warrens in different ground conditions; to gain a better understanding of the relationship between how they look on the outside and what goes on underneath," Swinbourne explained.

Researchers found warrens built under limestone have extensive tunnels and chambers rather than simply a discrete tunnel like that of those built in soil.

Their study, recently published in the journal Wildlife Research, was a part of a larger project assessing wombat conservation.

"These findings have important implications for how we estimate the numbers of wombats, and also how we think about the social structure of a wombat colony. They might be more social than we previously thought," Swinbourne said in the university's release.

The marsupials are considered an agricultural pest because their burrowing can cause damage to farm infrastructure and equipment as well as crops.

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