Culture

We’re Very Sorry, But Wombats Sharing Their Burrows During The Fires Is Probably A Myth

While we want the tale of unlikely friends to be true, it probably isn't.

wombat burrows wombats sharing burrows fake

Information that wombats have been sharing their burrows with, and “actively herding” other animals during the bushfires has gone viral over the past few days.

One Australian on Twitter gained over 250,000 likes on an image of a wombat accompanied with the caption: “Apparently wombats in fire effected areas are not only allowing other animals to take shelter in their deep, fire-resistant burrows but are actively herding fleeing animals into them.”

“We’re seeing more leadership and empathy from these guys than the entire Federal government,” the tweet continued.

The information in the tweet appears to have come from an Instagram post by Greenpeace NZ, who shared the information on Friday. “Reports from Australia that countless small animals have escaped death because wombats, unusually, opted to share their massive, complex burrows,” Greenpeace NZ wrote. “Even reports that they have been observed exhibiting ‘shepherding behaviour.'”

Greenpeace NZ has since updated their post, striking out the information about shepherding behaviour. They claiming that it was shared from “a social media post from Australia, but it turns out it’s not true”. 

There’s a LOT of weird conspiracy theories and lies circulating — it’s sad that this small good-news story is probably one of them.

The unverified information about burrow sharing has been shared further on Twitter and Facebook, with “reports from Australia” being the only source cited. Despite Greenpeace NZ not sharing their sources, last week ABC News wrote an article about animal survival tactics in response to the bushfires.

The article claims that “[some] animals prefer to stay put, seeking refuge in burrows or under rocks. Smaller animals will happily crash a wombat burrow if it means surviving a fire.”

This information was gathered from an 1975 edition of the Australian National History magazine, which analysed how animals reacted to a wildfire in 1972. “Many animals, including antechinus and rats, escaped by going underground into holes and wombat burrows,” the text read.

The idea of burrow sharing may have also come from an opinion piece by Jackie French, author of children’s book Diary of a Wombat. “I have seen wombats share their holes with snakes, quolls, possums and a nervous swamp wallaby,” Jackie wrote in the Brisbane Times.

La Trobe University Ecologist Michael Clarke explained to Junkee that “there were a number of anecdotal reports of some animals taking refuge in wombat burrows during the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires.”

“My suspicion is that [burrow sharing] will have been limited, and most likely to only have happened when the fire was passing,” Professor Clarke continued. “I can’t imagine longer-term co-habitation being tolerated by the wombat owning the burrow.”

Wombats are known to be highly-territorial creatures with complex burrow systems. These burrows can feature sub-tunnels with multiple entrances, meaning that a wombat and another creature meeting in the tunnels is unlikely.

A University of Melbourne zoology study into wombat burrows did manage to capture footage of a koala and rabbit entering a wombat burrow. But both animals were quick to enter and exit the tunnel system proving the idea that these systems have multiple chambers. The territorial nature of the wombat is seen after the koala leaves, and the wombat sniffs around and lingers by the entrance.

So, while animals may have tried to find refuge in these existing tunnels, wombats are definitely not actively letting these animals in like some kind of fairytale children’s cartoon plot.

There has been no recorded sightings of wombats shepherding or sharing their burrows with other animals during this bushfire season beyond Jackie French’s opinion piece. And considering she literally has a book titled Diary of a Wombat, her alleged wombat sightings should be taken with a grain of salt.

The expert opinion? Professor Clarke reckons the claims are “probably false, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.”

Junkee has reached out to Greenpeace NZ to verify the source of their information.