Life on the edge

Sunday 20 June, 2010

Map of Bon Bon Station Reserve

Meet a hungry vegetarian with an aversion to hot weather

How does a big-bodied, burrowing, hungry vegetarian with an aversion to hot weather and who doesn't like company survive in one of the hottest and driest places on earth? Surprisingly, for the southern hairy-nosed wombats at Bon Bon Station Reserve, the answer is "just nicely, thank you very much"!

Chilling out

Southern hairy-nosed wombatSouthern Hairy-Nosed Wombat. Photo: Dave Watts/Lochman Transparencies

Day-to-day life for this stumpy-legged powerhouse throws up many challenges, but this is one tough wombat.

First there's the heat. Wombats are susceptible to heat stress, so to conserve energy and water, southern hairy-nosed wombats rest in cool, humid burrows during the day and only emerge to feed on grasses and forbs at night once temperatures drop.

But here's an unkind twist of fate – around here the ground is either too sandy for burrows or rock-hard. This means an awful lot of work when it comes to building a burrow.

So, some tolerance of the neighbours is required (even though they'd prefer to be left alone). These wombats need as much help as they can get to carve out complex burrow systems with many entrances for flow of fresh air. Even better if you can share an already built warren with up to ten other wombats.

Southern hairy-nosed wombatsPhoto: Bush Heritage 

Chowing down

Next there's finding something to eat.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats might be the smallest of the three wombat species but that still makes them the third largest burrowing mammal in the world. And digging takes energy.

Yet, they occupy low-productivity land in low-rainfall areas that support low-nutrient grasses.

To combat this, southern hairy-nosed wombats live on the edge physiologically: they have very low metabolic rates that enable them to conserve water and extract enough energy and water (they don't need to drink) from their low-nutrient diet.

Shacking up

And now, finding a mate. These wombats produce a single offspring every two to three years. They have a female-biased dispersal system, which means the females leave home and go in search of mates, while the blokes laze at home and wait for a growl at the burrow entrance.

Burrows, however, are valuable real-estate, so it's an attractive offer to a prospective mate if you can provide shelter and a home.

So, as the sun sets and the heat of the day melts into the cool evening, another day ends at Bon Bon. You might think that life out here sounds pretty cruisy. But for the southern hairy-nosed wombat, it is anything but.

By Jim Radford

Species profile

Southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons)
Length: 77–93 cm
Weight: 19–32 kg
Distribution: Patchily distributed from the Nullarbor Plain, across the Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas to the South Australian Riverland, plus two small colonies in western NSW
Longevity: Estimated to be 15 to 20 years in the wild
Threats: Sarcoptic mange, drought, competition with introduced herbivores, habitat fragmentation, conflicts with humans.

A wombat's best friend

Did you know you've helped create a brighter future for the southern hairy-nosed wombat?

Your support has allowed us to preserve the wombat's habitat by removing competition from livestock, controlling erosion, increasing vegetation productivity and controlling rabbits in a mange-free population.

Thanks to you, a sizable population of wombats calls Bon Bon home. And you can feel good about that!

Bon Bon Station Reserve was purchased with the assistance of the Australian Government. The reserve is managed for nature conservation as part of the National Reserve System. We would also like to acknowledge The Nature Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy's David Thomas Challenge for their generous support of this work.

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