The northern hairy-nosed (NHN) wombat is perhaps Australia's most endangered mammal. Being fossorial and nocturnal as well as rare, NHN wombats are difficult to observe in the wild. Hence little is known of their social biology, such as their mating and dispersal systems. A hypothesis has been advanced that adult females of the species disperse post-breeding, leaving their young to inhabit the natal burrow. Female-biased dispersal is expected to result in higher relatedness amongst males in a burrow cluster than amongst females in a burrow cluster. The usefulness of a panel of microsatellite markers in estimating the relatedness structure, and in reconstructing pedigrees for, the sole known population of NHN wombats was assessed. Microsatellite genotypes at eight or nine loci were obtained from 58 of the 85 known individuals, and used to estimate pairwise individual relatedness using Queller and Goodnight's (1989) RELATEDNESS 4.2. Our analysis gave the unexpected result that both males and females were significantly more closely related to their same-sex burrow cluster mates than random, while opposite-sex animals sharing burrows were only slightly (nonsignificantly) more related than random. This raises the possibility of dispersal patterns which lead to association of same-sex relatives. The observed relatedness structure is not expected to make likely a high incidence of inbred matings, as close relatives of the opposite sex are not significantly associated in space. Parentage analysis was attempted using genetic exclusion and LOD likelihood ratios, but proved difficult because of low genetic variation, incomplete sampling of potential parents, and paucity of ecological data such as known mother/offspring pairs and ages of individuals.
- molecular ecology