Researchers from La Trobe University and the University of Tasmania have developed a robot called WomBot that can be used to explore wombat dens and better understand the transmission of disease between the creatures.
Wombats, the powerful and stubby Australian marsupials, reside and sleep in burrows, switching between different burrows every four to 10 days.
Parasitic mites that cause sarcoptic mange — a serious disease that affects wombats — are thought to be transmitted when wombats occupy each other’s burrows.
However, it is not clear whether conditions in burrows favor this transmission. The WomBot is a highly specialized tool designed to investigate environmental conditions in wombat caves.
It is a remote controlled device that rolls on tracks at a speed of up to 0.15 m/s and can climb slopes of up to 22°.
It contains a set of fixed sensors for measuring humidity and temperature; has cameras that face forward and back to help researchers visualize the environment, and a gripper that protrudes from the front that can be used to hold additional environmental sensors.
It is 30 cm long and weighs only 2 kg. “Wombat caves are challenging to study because they are narrow and muddy, can be tens of meters long, and contain steep sections and sharp turns,” said Dr. Robert Ross, co-author of the SN Applied Sciences study.
“WomBot allows us to enter and explore these burrows without destroying them or using expensive ground radar.
This can help us better understand the environmental conditions in burrows that may facilitate the transmission of sarcoptic mange.
” Ross and his colleagues used WomBot to survey 30 wombat burrows in Tasmania in September 2020.
They found an average temperature of 15°C in the burrows. , with minimal change over a 24 hour period (compared to three to 15°C outside the den), and an average relative humidity of 85 percent (compared to 70 to 95 percent outside the den).
Previous research suggests that to promote maximum survival of mange mites, temperatures are around 10°C and relative humidity between 75 and 97 percent: comparable to the conditions measured in the wombat burrows.
The authors estimate that female mites can survive for nine to 10 days at the entrance of a wombat burrow and between 16 and 18 days in a burrow, giving them the opportunity to infect unsuspecting wombats.
However, they recognize that the conditions observed within the confines of their research may not be representative of the year-round conditions in all of these burrows.
“Our findings indicate that environmental conditions in wombat burrows may facilitate the transmission of sarcoptic mange by promoting mite survival,” Ross continued.
“WomBot could potentially be used to reduce the spread of sarcoptic mange by applying insecticide or by making sure burrows are empty before being temporarily heated to eradicate mites.
” Future research, Ross suggests, could involve using data collected by WomBot to generate 3D models of burrows and collecting samples from burrows to study the prevalence of mites.
In more wombat-related technology news, scientists at the University of Adelaide showed in 2016 that it is possible to map wombat burrows — often built beneath many layers of hard limestone — using ground-penetrating radar.
Wombats are known as scientific curiosities because of their unique cube-shaped stools. In 2018, American scientists investigated the development of feces in the wombat’s gut.
They found that the stool solidifies in the last part of the intestine; because the walls of this part of the intestine do not stretch evenly, it deforms and forms the stool into regular blocks.