Wombats are saving native wildlife from the drought that has gripped eastern Australia by digging holes to groundwater other animals would not be able to reach.
The internet fell in love with reports wombats had been herding other animals caught in the Australian bushfires into the safety of their burrows, and then got very sad when they were told it probably wasn't true. However, we now have far more reliable evidence that wombats have been lifesavers during the long drought that created the conditions for the unprecedented fires.
Ted Finnie, a cattle farmer from Merriwa in New South Wales' Hunter Valley, alerted the world to the previously unreported phenomenon. As reported by The ABC, the wombats used their powerful digging arms to excavate a “crater” with accessible water on Finnie's property. Cameras have recorded goannas, emus, and wallabies among the beneficiaries.
Finnie told IFLScience the hole sits near the base of a cliff. He suspects water flowing from higher ground passes through the sandy first few meters of the soil in the valley below, before being trapped by a layer of clay soil. During wet years, the water reached the surface, but as the drought intensified this dried up. The nearest alternative water is around 500 meters (1,640 feet) away, and has also been affected by the long dry spell.
Combined with the exceptional heat, this placed the area's rich wildlife in severe danger. Enter the heroic wombats, who have shouted drinks for all by chasing permanent water ever deeper – eventually reaching 4 meters (13 feet) down.
Finnie, a retired vet at Taronga Zoo, told IFLScience even his cattle have taken advantage of the access when grazed on that part of the farm.
Dr Julie Old of the University of Western Sydney visited the property and told the ABC she had never heard of such behavior before despite being leading campaigns to save wombats from disease.. “It's almost like the wombats are water diviners, they're finding the water and digging the holes to get to the water and the other animals are taking advantage of it,” she said.
Within hours of the story being reported, however, Old learned the behavior is more widespread, telling IFLScience: “I’ve been contacted by someone else that knows of two other similar sites in Victoria.”
When IFLScience spoke to him, Finnie was celebrating 20 millimeters (0.8 inches) of rain that fell overnight. While not matching the floods experienced further north, he thinks it will be some time before access to water is as scarce again.
That won't end the threats the property faces, however. The farm is in an area suspected of having coal seam gas, whose extraction can poison water supplies. Finnie fears federal government pressure for increased methane production will lead to mining companies attempting a much less welcome sort of digging. If anyone tries “we'll have attack wombats” trained and ready, he warned.