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Wombat burrows help other critters survive after fires

Wombat dens are acting as survival refuges for a surprising range of creatures after bushfires struck, a study suggests.

Researchers have analyzed camera trap footage from Woomargama National Park and Woomargama State Forest in NSW, where more than 18,000 hectares burned during the Black Summer fires.

Sensor cameras were installed for 28 wombat dens in areas with varying degrees of fire damage.

Cameras were also placed at 28 control locations, which had been affected by fire but had no dens.

Native species such as woodrats, agile antechinus, lace monitors and painted button quail were more common around burrows compared to similar sites without them.

The cameras captured 30 species inspecting a den, with 11 foraging for them, 10 entering or leaving a wombat shelter, four drinking from a flooded den and one taking a bath.

Ecologist Grant Linley was the lead author of the study and is a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University’s Gulbali Institute.

He says common wombats’ burrows play a valuable role in Australia’s fire-prone forests, making the species’ decline more worrying.

“They are the only remaining native species capable of digging deep, wide burrows. Their value as shelter and refuge for countless species will only increase as fires become more intense in the future,” he says.

“Wombats change the soil, topography and vegetation around their burrows. They turn over tons of soil and build a burrow and their droppings increase nitrogen levels, which increases herb cover.

“We think these changes increase foraging opportunities for small insectivores and omnivores… and more small vertebrates hanging around could then attract larger native predators, allowing the impact of burrows to flow through the system.”

Professor Dale Nimmo from the university co-authored the paper and said shelter could be a rare commodity after bushfires and wombat burrows could potentially contribute to the survival, survival and recovery of other animals.

Kita Ashman, scientist and co-author from WWF Australia, says wombat burrows could help some species cope with climate change.

“Wombats’ extensive burrow systems can create microhabitats that improve water retention, aid in nutrient cycling and contribute to the overall resilience of the ecosystem,” says Ashamn.

“In an increasingly unstable climate, wombats can be valuable agents in adapting to and mitigating some of the impacts of climate change.”

The research has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Mammalogy.