Even on a continent known for its charismatic animals, wombats stand out. Everything about them is adorable, from their attitude to obstacles to the cubic shape of their droppings. Sadly, zoologists are concerned about the damage a disease is doing to their numbers, and are calling on those who love the Vombatidae to come to their aid.
There are three species of wombat. Only 200 northern hairy nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus krefftii) survive – although numbers are slowly increasing – and they are considered among the most endangered mammals on the planet.
However, with all the attention focused on L. krefftii, there is a danger its smaller cousins will be neglected. This is a problem, Dr Julie Old, of the University of Western Sydney, told IFLScience, because bare nosed wombats (Vombatus ursinus) and southern hairy nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) are affected by sarcoptic mange, which can, Old says, kill a wombat in as little as three months. The mange exposes sufferers to bacterial diseases, sends them deaf and blind and causes them to need more food than they can find.
The mange is caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei mite, but Old says we don’t know that much else about it. “One researcher looked at mange on foxes and wombats to see if it is the same variety,” Old told IFLScience, but little is known about whether the mite jumps species. Cases of mange have been recorded across south-eastern Australia, but Old says we don’t know much about where the major hot spots are.
So far the northern hairy nosed wombat has not been affected, but Old believes this is more likely to be because the mite has not invaded their range, rather than from any immunity. “If it got into them it would presumably cause extinction,” she said.
Treatments exist, but Old says they are labor intensive, requiring either the difficult task of capturing a wombat or the establishment of burrow flaps that treat the wombat as they enter and leave their home. “Up to six treatments can be required, and they don’t work when the mange is quite advanced,” Old said.
If all seems grim for wombats, their saving grace may be just how much people love them. While once people may have eaten modern wombats’ giant ancestors to extinction, today people are entranced by the waddling beasts with backwards facing pouches and super-tough backsides.
Old is calling for an army of wombat warriors to use a newly created tool, known as WomSAT, which allows people to record sightings of wombats and their burrows, including their state of health. While Old says she also wants to know about cases of road kill to “learn if there are any hotspots,” the main aim is to discover where the mange is most frequent and whether it is spreading.
If successful, WomSAT may provide a model for other programs to tackle Australia’s catastrophic loss of native mammals.
A wombat with a severe case of mange, and desperately in need of human intervention. Credit Julie Old