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Weird & Wonderful Creatures: Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat

Northern hairy-nosed Wombat. Photo Credit: State of Queensland, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. This photo is licensed under CC BY 3.0 AU.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) is one of the rarest mammals on earth, with only 230 of these marsupials left as of 2015, all living exclusively in animal wilderness sanctuaries.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat is about the same size as a solidly built medium-sized dog. It grows to a foot tall and three feet long and weighs 70–88 pounds and is covered with soft, greyish-brown fur, including on its nose. It has pointy ears, a broad muzzle, and sharp claws, which it uses to dig extensive burrows underground, often amongst tree roots in sandy soil. The largest burrow researchers have found is ten feet below ground, nearly 300 feet long, and contains six entrances. While it looks rather slow and ponderous, it is capable of running for short distances at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour when threatened. It has poor eyesight, but keen senses of smell and hearing.

A nocturnal animal, the northern hairy-nosed wombat usually remains in its burrow during the day, coming out to graze on the leaves of native grasses during the overnight hours. However, on sunny winter days, these wombats can often be seen sunbathing near their burrow's entrance.

Lasiorhinus krefftii is the largest of three species of wombat, a marsupial found in Australia. The others, the common wombat and the southern hairy-nosed wombat, have more stable populations. Like other marsupials, such as kangaroos and koalas, they give birth to their young when the baby is very small, and it climbs into its mother's pouch to nurse and live for 8–9 months. After that, they remain with their mother for another 6–12 months.

While a worldwide population of under 250 certainly makes people understand this wombat's classification as critically endangered, it's important to note that significant conservation work has gone into reviving the species, which numbered as low as three dozen in the early 1980s. Once found throughout a large swath of eastern Australia, the northern hairy-nosed wombat's population was diminished by competition for food with domestic and introduced species—such as kangaroos, cattle, rabbits, and sheep—and is now restricted to two refuges in Queensland.

Epping Forest National Park has been a haven for the species since 1974 when the last truly wild individuals were discovered. To protect the species, the 32-square-kilometer park is not open to the public, and access is restricted to scientists, rangers, and volunteers. The animals live in a 3-square-kilometer fenced-in area that protects them against dingo attacks, such as the ones in the early part of this century that killed a tenth of the population. In 2009, Richard Underwood Nature Refuge was created in the southern region of the species' native range to house a small number of the wombats to protect against natural disaster wiping out the entire population.

Learn about other animals found in Australia and New Zealand, such as the duck-billed platypus, the blobfish, and other creatures found amid the coral of the Great Barrier Reef.

Science NetLinks offers a variety of lessons on endangered species. A two-part lesson series (6-8) includes Why Are Species Endangered?, which introduces and explores the various issues and problems faced by endangered species globally, and Working to Save Endangered Species, which focuses less on the science and more on the actual work of saving endangered species. The Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations lesson (9-12) provides an introduction to conservation biology via the memoirs of a scientist who has traveled throughout the world to study and defend endangered species.

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