Flexible jaws may help wombats better survive in a changing world by adaptingto climate change’s effect on vegetation and new diets in conservationsanctuaries.

An international study, co-led by The University of Queensland’s Dr VeraWeisbecker, has revealed that wombat jaws appear to change in relation totheir diets.

“The survival of wombats depends on their ability to chew large amounts oftough plants such as grasses, roots and even bark,” Dr Weisbecker said.

“Climate change and drought are thought to make these plants even tougher,which might require further short-term adaptations of the skull.

“Scientists had long suspected that native Australian marsupial mammals werelimited in being able to adapt their skull in this way.

“But in good news, our research has contradicted this idea.”

The team used a technique known as geometric morphometrics – the study of howshapes vary – to characterise skull shape variation within three differentspecies of wombat, with each species having a slightly different diet.

The data were collected with computed tomography – known to most as CTscanning – and analysed with new computation techniques developed by UQ’s DrThomas Guillerme.

Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou, who co-led the research project from the MonashBiomedicine Discovery Institute, said the study suggested that short-term jawand skull adaptation was occurring.

“It seems that individuals within each wombat species differ most where theirchewing muscles attach, or where biting is hardest,” Dr Panagiotopoulou said.

“This means that individual shapes are related to an individual’s diet andfeeding preferences.

“Their skulls seem to be changing to match their diets.

“There are a number of factors that can influence skull shape, but it seemsthat wombats are able to remodel their jaws as the animals grow to becomestronger and protect themselves from harm.”

Dr Weisbecker said the team was particularly excited that the criticallyendangered northern hairy-nosed wombat, with around 250 individuals left,seemed to be able to adapt to new diets.

“In order to protect endangered animals, it’s sometimes necessary totranslocate them to new sanctuary locations where threats are less, but dietsmay be quite different,” she said.

“Our findings suggest that future generations of these northern hairy-nosedwombats will adapt well to a different diet in a new home.

The researchers are planning to use a similar analysis on koala skull shapes.

The team comprises of researchers from UQ, Monash University, The Universityof Liverpool, The University of Adelaide, and The University of Arkansas.

Funding was provided by The Wombat Foundation and the Australian ResearchCouncil.

The study is published in Frontiers in Zoology (DOI:10.1186/s12983-019-0338-5).

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