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Wombats not herding animals into their burrows during Australia fires

January 14, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Wombats in parts of Australia stricken by wildfires are not only allowing other animals to take shelter in their deep burrows, but are actively herding fleeing animals into them.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Partly false. Wombats do not herd other animals. However, the large furry marsupials have been known to share their burrows with some small animals.

THE FACTS: As wildfires continue to rage in Australia, social media posts have brought a flood of attention to the plight of animals threatened by the fires. The posts have also led to some false claims circulating online.

Greenpeace New Zealand shared a post on Jan. 9 with a photo of a wombat stating: Reports from Australia say that countless small animals have escaped death because wombats, unusually, opted to share their massive complex burrows. With some reports saying that the animals have even been observed exhibiting “shepherding behavior.”

The group later corrected their Instagram post to say the shepherding aspect was not accurate, but before the correction was made social media users took screenshots of the post and shared it widely. One tweet with the false information was retweeted more than 72,000 times and received more than 277,000 likes.

Wombat experts in Australia said other animals commonly use wombat burrows for shelter and occasional access to resources such as water. The large marsupials use their claws to dig complex burrows.

“I would describe this as wombats tolerating other species using burrows they dig,” Scott Carver, a senior lecturer in wildlife ecology at the University of Tasmania, told The Associated Press in an email.

He said there was no evidence the wombats were “sharing or encouraging other animals” to go into the burrows.

Carver, whose research has focused on wombats, said the idea they are herding other animals is likely just a misinterpretation of a wombat following another species into a burrow.

Julie Old, associate professor at Western Sydney University, told The Associated Press in an email that wombats have multiple burrows and when they are not using them other animals take advantage.

“Wombats are ‘ecological engineers’ because they build burrows, thus providing habitat for a range of other species, assisting in soil turnover etc.,” she said. “They are also the largest burrowing animals.”

Old, who co-authored a paper on bare-nosed wombat burrows, said she has not personally seen wombats sharing burrows with other large animals at the same time, but small animals like like native mice and lizards are known to share wombats habitat.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536