Australian foreplay: Bum-biting in an underground hole

Wombats have all the fun

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Wombats generally get tagged as #cute in social media images, but on dates things can get, umm, hairy, with boffins reporting bum-biting as a prominent mating behaviour.

If a male Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat runs down a female in a burrow, he's confronted with a challenge: the marsupials' ample, muscular, and extremely solid posterior is a barrier so forbidding it's been deployed to kill dogs.

Discussing a fertility research project with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr Alyce Swinbourne of the University of Queensland said securing the female's cooperation can become “quite aggressive … but it's perfectly natural and hilarious to watch”.

Females are perfectly able to return the favour, so in the whole process, a lot of fur is lost.

It's all a serious research effort: wombats suffer from habitat loss, and the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat is at “critically endangered” with only a couple of hundred individuals still in the wild.

To try and help things along, Dr Swinbourne and colleagues have been observing the more common Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat's mating behaviours to develop a breeding model for the northern cousin.

That's how the researchers spotted bum-biting as a mating behaviour. As the university explained in its media release: “female wombats are more likely to bite the rumps of the males in pre-copulatory behaviour at the most fertile phase of their reproductive cycle”.

Watching those behaviours let the researchers associate mating-readiness with symptoms less subjective and more reproducible, such as urine samples (field ecologists have all the fun), which could help captive breeding.

One reason there's no captive breeding program for the northern species is that the southerners have been uncooperative in zoos, making it risky to reduce the wild population in the north even further. ®


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