Australia’s Wombats Are Dying in the Worst Way Possible—Could an App Help?

Smartphones can help chart the spread of deadly mange, which is wiping out these cuddly critters.
(Photo: DEA/C.Dani/I. Jeske/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Sep 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Australia’s wombats are insanely cute and dying in the most insane way possible.

Over the past few years, two of the country’s three wombat species have been struck by a nasty disease called sarcoptic mange. The disease is carried by mites, which probably came to the continent when European red foxes were introduced there nearly two centuries ago. The mites dig into wombats’ skin and lay hundreds of microscopic eggs. After they hatch, the larvae feed on the wombats’ blood and carve more tunnels through the skin as they mature. The resulting infections cause the animals to lose their hair, develop ulcers, go blind and deaf, become disoriented, and die.

Mange has affected one species, the bare-nosed wombat, for decades. But over the past five years or so it has spread and also started to affect another species, the southern hairy-nosed wombat. Both species act as perfect vectors for the mites. Wombats are polygamous, share underground dens, and move around quite a bit every night, making it easy for one animal to pass mites on to many others. (The third wombat species, the northern hairy-nosed, is critically endangered and has not been affected.)

No one knows why the mites have started to spread, but wherever they land, the wombats are suffering. “In some areas the numbers of wombats have dramatically decreased and may lead to local population extinction,” said Julie Old, associate professor of animal science at the University of Western Sydney. Some wombat populations have been reduced by as much as 75 percent.

Old is one of the scientists behind an innovative endeavor that aims to turn the wombat decline around. The WomSAT project (that stands for “wombat survey and analysis tool”) is asking people in Australia to report any wombats they see, whether they’re healthy or sick. Observations can be reported through the website or a free app for Android phones (an Apple app will follow shortly).

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Data collected through the app—to date, more than 1,300 sightings have been reported, including 500 in the past week alone—will help the researchers to map wombat populations, see which ones are suffering, and determine where they are being hit by cars, their other leading cause of death.

By crowdsourcing this information, the researchers can gather data faster and more affordably than they could on their own. “As scientists, it’s difficult in terms of budget and time to survey the areas where southern hairy-nosed and bare-nosed wombats are,” Old said. “If citizen scientists get on board and help, we can cover a much larger area and determine how big the mange problem is. In particular we want to know where the pockets of animals are with and without mange. Obviously, the more information we have, the more accurate the information will be.”

Early detection of mange is critical to wombat survival. One method being put to use in several national parks involves finding wombat burrows and placing a chemically treated flap in front of the entrance. The flaps—made from ice-cream lids—are applied with an antiparasitic medication called Cydectin that can kill any mites the wombats might carry. The medicine is often applied to wombats via a pole. It takes four to five weeks to treat a wombat at the first stages of mite infestation.

With mange spreading so quickly, wombats may not have much time. That makes WomSAT’s speedy data collection all the more important.

“Documenting the mange distribution is the very first step,” Old said.

The information will help conservationists to develop new strategies for wombat preservation and improve their knowledge about these once-common species.

Old said the team has “been very glad to have the fantastic support provided by the public,” adding, “I think if everyone works together, we can make a difference.”