Citizen Scientists Uncover the Top Two Menaces to Wombats in Recent Data Analysis

Citizen Scientists Uncover the Top Two Menaces to Wombats in Recent Data Analysis

WomSAT (Wombat Survey and Analysis Tool) is a citizen science project and website that was launched in 2015. It allows individuals, known as “wombat warriors,” to report sightings of wombats, their burrows, and even their cube-shaped droppings. The project’s main goal is to gather information about wombats from all over Australia, with a particular focus on identifying threats. By gaining a better understanding of wombat biology, the project aims to support conservation efforts. WomSAT also aims to educate the wider community by using the hashtag #WombatWednesday to spread awareness. As a result of the project, wombats have gained more recognition in the broader community, with thousands of posts being shared on social media.

To date, citizen scientists across Australia have reported over 23,000 wombat sightings to WomSAT. These sightings have recently been analyzed and the findings have been published in Australian Mammalogy and Integrative Zoology. The data has provided new insights into two major threats to wombats: roadkill hotspots and areas with a high prevalence of sarcoptic mange, a disease related to scabies.

Wombats are large marsupials native to Australia that primarily eat grass. They play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity as ecological engineers through their burrowing activities, which help maintain soil health and create habitats for other plants and animals. There are three species of wombats: the critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat, the threatened southern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed or common wombat.

Like many other native Australian animals, wombats face numerous threats including habitat destruction, changes in fire regimes, competition from introduced species, and direct persecution by humans who consider them pests. The bare-nosed wombat is particularly affected by roadkill and sarcoptic mange.

The data reported to WomSAT have identified roadkill hotspots and factors that contribute to wombat vehicle collisions. Some areas, such as Old Bega Road and Steeple Flat Road in southern New South Wales, have been identified as roadkill hotspots. Most wombat roadkill deaths occur in winter, and the majority of the wombats appear to be healthy. By having better data and identifying these hotspots, measures can be taken to reduce road risks for both people and wombats. Strategies such as reduced speeds, signage, and barriers can be implemented to prevent wombats from crossing roads and avoid collisions.

WomSAT data has also revealed that wombats in closer proximity to urban areas are more likely to have sarcoptic mange. This disease, caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei mite, is fatal if left untreated. The mites burrow into the skin of wombats, causing extreme itchiness and discomfort, leading to open wounds and secondary infections. Rainfall has been found to be a significant factor in the occurrence of sarcoptic mange, potentially due to the mites thriving in humid environments. Further research is needed to fully understand this relationship. Additionally, field research has indicated that rainfall contributes to a higher occurrence of sarcoptic mange in specific populations.

Recent upgrades to WomSAT now allow users to upload GPS location data embedded in photos taken with smartphones. This means that users can upload wombat sightings when they regain phone signal or internet connection. Users can also upload information about areas where wombats are not found, which provides valuable information about wombat distribution and abundance.

Another new feature on WomSAT assists wildlife carers in monitoring and recording the treatment of wombats with sarcoptic mange in the field. This information benefits the wider wildlife care network by highlighting areas where wombats are currently being treated and identifying new areas where treatment is needed. In the long term, this resource will also support the development of better treatment regimes by recording treatment methods and monitoring the recovery of wombats through photographs.

Regardless of their level of experience with wombats, anyone can get involved and become a wombat warrior by reporting sightings of wombats and their burrows on the WomSAT website using a mobile phone or computer. Ongoing reporting to WomSAT will provide more insights into these fascinating marsupials and help with determining their distribution and abundance patterns, as well as managing the threats they face.