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Keywords:

  • dispersal;
  • kinship;
  • marsupial;
  • microsatellites;
  • molecular ecology

Abstract

Generalizations about sociobiology require investigations of species with diverse ecological roles and phylogenetic affiliations. The southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons) is valuable here, in that it is a marsupial of semi-arid habitat, and one of the largest burrowing herbivores (commonly attaining 26 kg). Its sociobiology is poorly understood because the species is nocturnal, shy, and difficult to observe or capture nondisruptively. To investigate aspects of the species’ sociobiology in continuous habitat, we applied high-intensity, temporally replicated, noninvasive sampling and genotyping of hairs to identify individuals and their sex. Spatial relatedness (kinship) structure was estimated, and related to patterns of burrow-use. To understand the association of kinship with burrow/warren-sharing and preferential colocation between wombats, > 100 genetically ‘tagged’ individuals at Brookfield Conservation Park (Murraylands, South Australia) were ‘tracked’ through multiple seasons between 1999 and 2001. Dispersal was female-biased, and may be performed by females after breeding. Conversely, males were philopatric. Male kin relationships were characterized by preferential burrow- and warren-sharing among closely related males, often in associations lasting for years. In contrast, females under-associated with their close female relatives and did not form matrilineal groupings with potential for favourable kin interactions. This fundamental departure from the predominant mammalian pattern raises questions about the origins and maintenance of the system, which is now known from all three species of wombat. The present study provides starting points to address those questions by adding to our knowledge of longitudinal spatiotemporal associations and habitat use of a marsupial with the unusual system of female-biased dispersal, and by outlining robust methodologies.