Besides being known for their cube-shaped droppings, wombats are unfortunately also prone to sarcoptic mange disease. In order to better understand how the mites that cause scabies can spread between wombats, scientists have developed a robot that explores burrows.
Wombats are primarily nocturnal animals, spending the day sleeping in burrows that they dig in the ground. They change burrows every four to ten days, often simply moving to another burrow that has been previously dug and occupied by another wombat. It is believed that the parasite Sarcoptes scabiei mites, which cause sarcoptic mange, can be transferred between wombats when they swap their burrows in this way.
Researchers at La Trobe University in Australia and the University of Tasmania wanted to see the likelihood of this being the case, so they developed the new robot. Known as the WomBot, the battery-powered device is 30 cm long (11.8 inches), weighs 2 kg (4.4 lbs) and travels on tank-like tracks at a maximum speed of 0 , 15 meters per second (0.5 ft / s).
It is also equipped with temperature and humidity sensors, as well as front and rear cameras and LED lights. Live video from these cameras is relayed through an Ethernet cable connected to a human operator at the top. In addition, a clamp on the front of the robot makes it possible to place data logging sensors inside the burrows and to retrieve them later.
“Wombat burrows are difficult to study because they are narrow, muddy, can be tens of meters long, and contain steep sections and sharp bends,” says Dr Robert Ross de La Trobe, corresponding author of an article. on the study. “WomBot allows us to enter and explore these burrows without destroying them or using expensive ground-penetrating radar. This can help us better understand the environmental conditions in the burrows that may facilitate the transmission of sarcoptic mange.”
In September 2020, the robot was used to explore 30 wombat burrows in Tasmania. It was found that the average temperature inside these burrows was 15 ºC (59 ºF), while the average relative humidity was 85 percent. According to previous studies, mites thrive at around 10 ºC (50 ºF) and a relative humidity of 75 to 95 percent – conditions similar to those in burrows.
Based on this data, scientists now believe that women Sarcoptes scabiei mites could survive for nine to 10 days at the entrance to a burrow – or 16 to 18 days inside a burrow – spreading from one wombat occupant to another.
“Our results indicate that environmental conditions in wombat burrows may facilitate the transmission of sarcoptic mange by promoting the survival of mites,” says Ross. “WomBot could potentially be used to help reduce the spread of sarcoptic mange by administering an insecticide or making sure burrows are empty before being temporarily heated in order to eradicate the mites.”
And in case you were wondering, he tells us that the robot only encountered one wombat in its burrow. The animal was probably sleeping, and the team quickly pulled the WomBot away from it.
The article was recently published in the journal SN Applied Sciences.