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If you've been following the bushfire crisis on social media and elsewhere, you may have seen reports of benevolent wombats herding other animals to shelter into their fire-proof burrows.
These stories went quickly viral—probably reflecting the appetite for good news after the horrors of the bushfire crisis. However the accounts are not entirely accurate.
Wombats - Animals - Bushfire - Safety - Wombats
Wombats do not heroically round up helpless animals during a bushfire and lead them to safety. But wombats do help other animals in a different way—even if it's not their intention.
Wombats can emerge as accidental heroes during a bushfire, by providing a safe refuge underground for other wildlife.
Wombat - Warrens—networks - Burrows—are - Environment - Mammals
Wombat warrens—networks of interconnecting burrows—are large and complex, and considerably shielded from the above-ground environment. Small mammals are known to use wombat burrows to survive an inferno.
One study of the southern hairy-nosed wombat, for instance, found warrens with 28 entrances and nearly 90 metres of tunnels.
Temperatures - Burrows - Temperatures - Temperature - Fluctuations
What's more, temperatures deep within burrows are very stable compared to surface temperatures, with daily temperature fluctuations of less than 1℃, compared to 24℃ on the surface.
This thermal buffering would help a great deal during intense fires, and you can understand why other species would want access to these safe havens.
Wombats - Heroes
Wombats aren’t benevolent. They’re accidental heroes.
By placing camera traps outside 34 wombat burrows, a 2015 study showed a surprising variety of animals using southern hairy-nosed wombat burrows. Researchers observed ten other species, six of which used them on multiple occasions.
Intruders - Rock - Wallabies - Bettongs - Skinks
The intruders ranged from rock wallabies and bettongs to skinks and birds. Little penguins were recorded using burrows 27 times, while the black-footed rock wallaby was observed using wombat burrows more often than wombats—nearly 2,000 visits in eight weeks! They were even observed using the burrows to specifically avoid birds of prey.
But wombats aren't alone in providing real estate for other species. Hopping mice, echidnas, sand swimming...
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