Several posts claiming that wombats have been acting like rescue workers during the Australian wildfires have gone viral over the last week, with some of them claiming that the animals are “shepherding” smaller animals into their burrows.
The posts generally say that wombats have been “sharing” their burrows with other mammals, and sometimes state that they’re doing more to help with the crisis than the Australian government.
Or else remarking that they hadn’t realized quite how fricking huge wombats are.
Greenpeace New Zealand wrote that there are “reports from Australia that countless small animals have escaped death because wombats, unusually, opted to share their massive complex burrows. Even reports that they have been observed exhibiting ‘shepherding behavior’.”
Which all sounds a little bit too Disney, doesn’t it? So is there any truth to these claims?
Well, first off, the claims that wombats have been observed herding smaller animals to safety is not substantiated. Greenpeace themselves later posted an update crossing out reports of shepherding behavior with the apology “we shared this from a social media post from Australia, but it turns out it’s not true”.
Jackie French, author and director of The Wombat Foundation, told IFLScience she was skeptical of claims of shepherding.
“Wombats are extremely short-sighted. They focus mostly on food and dirt. It would be hard for them to see well enough to shepherd, nor have I seen one do so.”
However, she isn’t dismissing the possibility entirely.
“Wombat behavior is usually extremely limited – eat, sleep, scratch – but they are capable of extraordinary ingenuity in the rare times it’s needed. I’d have dismissed the shepherding claim altogether if I hadn’t known a wombat who decided to make friends with me four decades ago, and showed me around the bush. But he didn’t shepherd – he just waited, looking around to see if I followed. Baby wombats follow their mothers by trying to touch them at all times – the mothers don’t shepherd their young as a dog might do.
“It’s unlikely any shepherding would be necessary. [Other animals] would know the wombat warrens existed and are intelligent enough to seek shelter.”
But could they be sharing burrows?
Wombats create complex burrows, often with multiple chambers and entrances. And they’re huge, with some of them stretching over 100 meters (330 feet). French told the Canberra Times that the burrows are deep and well-ventilated enough to protect them from the fires, and that these usually solitary creatures had been sharing the burrows with each other for some six weeks now.
But sharing with other species? Using camera traps, University of Melbourne zoology students have captured other species utilizing wombat burrows.
Before you start coming up with a sitcom based on mismatched living arrangements between a koala and a wombat, we should point out that the burrows are so large and complex it’s unlikely that the animals met, and the smaller animals wouldn’t have stuck around long if they had.
“Wombats can be a bit cantankerous,” Dr Kath Handasyde, an expert in native mammal ecology and physiology, told the University of Melbourne. If the koala had encountered the wombat, it would probably have been chased out and wouldn’t have been anywhere near as relaxed as we can see in the photos.”
However, during dire circumstances, Jackie French said that that might be different.
“I’ve seen wombats share their burrows in times of crisis with other wombats, snakes, quolls, possums, bandicoots, echidnas, bettongs and possibly other smaller creatures,” she told IFLScience.
“Wallabies will shelter in wombat burrows too, but only those with larger entrances, and they don’t seem to go far down them, but as I’ve never shared a wombat burrow in a fire I can’t tell what else may have been down there, only seen what has emerged or vanished into a warren.
“The animals here as I write this are sharing food bowls at the food and water station, and wombats will allow others to share their burrows in danger, but usually (not always) only in danger, but this seems to be more interspecies tolerance in extremis, not shepherding.”
So, in short, it’s possible that animals are sheltering in wombat burrows and that wombats would tolerate them, but it’s likely that if that is happening they weren’t shepherded there, and that the animals fled there themselves.