Alyce Swinbourne is acquiring a PhD from the University of Queensland in tickling the rumps of wombats. Admittedly, her work involves much more than that, but rump tickling is definitely essential to her doctorate. Moreover, her success has opened up the possibility that there will soon be jobs tickling the rumps of many marsupial species.
Northern hairy-nosed wombats are among the world's most endangered mammals. Although their numbers have recently recovered slightly, at an estimated 200 survivors they are classified as critically endangered. Part of the problem is that the Lasiorhinus krefftii don't breed terribly often. Attempts to save the species through artificial insemination have had little success.
Sadly, northern hairy nosed wombats' mating troubles means not many examples of this. Tina Janssen
This is where Swinbourne comes in. She is attempting to find the narrow window when female wombats are fertile. To do this has required her to take the urine out of her charges, collecting 2,500 urine samples from female wombats and measuring them for two types of hormones. Wombats are notoriously stubborn creatures, and getting them to wee on demand is challenging.
“It is common among marsupials that mothers will encourage the young to release so they don't urinate or defecate in the pouch,” Swinbourne told IFLScience. Tina Janssen of the Wombat Breeding Center successfully imitated this behavior on bottle-fed baby wombats. Swinburne experimented to see whether the same technique could be used on adults, and found that if the timing is right, it could.
“People need to go when they wake up, and so do wombats,” Swinbourne said in a statement. “This study uses knowledge of wombats’ natural behavior to collect urine samples in a non-invasive way with little stress to them.” Swinbourne collects the urine in a carefully positioned frying pan.
Alyce Swinbourne tickles the rump of a wombat to collect its urine for study. Alyce Swinbourne.
Swinbourne presented her work at Australian Mammal Society and International Society of Wildlife Endocrinology conferences and told IFLScience: “I have been able to see when the females were cycling over two mating seasons.” Unfortunately wombats' irregular cycles has prevented her from making conclusive predictions about the timing of ovulation.
Nevertheless, Swinbourne's work improves the chances of hitting female wombats' fertile window. The urine technique has far more potential than traditional methods based on collecting fecal samples since, Swinbourne told IFLScience. “It takes three days for food to go through marsupials' guts,” she said, making urine a far more precise measure of hormones at a specific time.
Northern hairy-nosed wombats are so rare work on them is very restricted. Consequently, Swinbourne's work has been done on the closely related southern hairy-nosed wombat. Some isolated populations of southern hairy-nosed wombats are threatened, but the population as a whole is sustainable. Only if work on the southern proves successful will it be applied to their northern cousins.
Swinbourne is also watching the behavior of both male and female wombats for additional cues. “I hope that the skills developed in this project will be transferable to other Australian marsupial species, such as koalas and gliders,” she said, adding to IFLScience that one researcher is hoping to apply it to tree kangaroos.
How wombats are meant to mate. Alyce Swinbourne