A Charles Sturt University researcher’s latest work is helping crack the code to save Australia’s critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat.
Dr Hayley Stannard said using DNA metabarcoding allowed her to determine what types of vegetation the species was consuming and she’s published her findings in Ecology and Evolution.
“By understanding their nutritional and dietary habits, we are then able to move forward looking into how to best improve the wombats’ health and, in an ideal scenario, get to a point where they are no longer critically endangered,” Dr Stannard said.
The northern hairy-nosed wombat is the largest of the three wombat species, with a current estimate of 350-400 individuals, based on expected growth rates, making up their population.
The population is contained within two fenced locations in Queensland—Epping Forest National Park and Richard Underwood Nature Refuge—with an intended translocation planned in 2024 to a new, third site at Powrunna State Forest.
Dr Stannard said these areas have also proven beneficial in being able to study the species, with her latest work centering around the invasive buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) native to Africa, southern Europe, Asia and parts of the Middle East.
“Buffel grass has been increasing in the wombats’ habitats and often outcompetes native grasses and other vegetation,” she said.
“It also poses an additional risk in that it can intensify fires.”
Through the study, Dr Stannard said they were able to determine if wombats were changing their eating habits around the invasive grass species.
“We used wombat scats collected by our colleagues at the Department of Environment and Science and extracted the DNA, specifically looking for DNA sequences from plants,” she said.
“Our study found that the northern hairy-nosed wombats were mostly eating grasses and some legumes.
“We made comparisons between the two sites where the wombats live and across seasons, and found that while they ate a few other species, they mostly ate buffel grass at both sites and regardless of the season.”
This consumption of buffel grass has increased since past studies conducted more than two decades ago, according to Dr Stannard, which previously used histological techniques as opposed to DNA metabarcoding.
“Our results suggest buffel grass is dominating the habitat, supporting other studies, which may be causing native grasses to be reduced or disappear from the habitats,” she said.
“We identified that the wombats were eating more species of plant than previously reported, and all wombats were eating large proportions of buffel grass.
“Further studies are needed to investigate the role of buffel grass in the nutrition of one of our most critically endangered species, to determine if it is impacting their overall health.”
This article was sourced from the News page on the Charles Sturt University website.