Light Pollution Delays Wallaby Reproduction
Artificial light is causing some wallabies to delay when they give birth, putting them out of sync with the resources they need to feed their young.
Artificial light is causing some wallabies to delay when they give birth, putting them out of sync with the food resources they need to feed their young, new research suggests.
And energy-efficient LED lighting could make matters worse, unless care is taken to develop "wildlife-friendly lighting", say the authors in today's Royal Society journal Proceedings B.
"These results suggest that urban light pollution could have profound impacts on desynchronising seasonal physiological processes in wildlife," the researchers wrote.
Artificial light is increasing at 6 per cent per year globally and there is concern it could affect the timing of reproduction of animals whose breeding season is cued by changes in day length.
To investigate this phenomenon, zoologist Dr Kylie Robert of La Trobe University in Melbourne and colleagues studied tammar wallabies (Macropus eugenii), which time their breeding like clockwork to fit in with the seasons.
In the natural environment most tammar wallabies give birth around six weeks after the summer solstice, carrying the joey for 300 days in the pouch.
This timing ensures the growing joey reaches its peak milk demand the following spring when food is abundant.
Tammar wallabies are believed to use the gradual shortening of day lengths to detect when the summer solstice has passed and when they should give birth.
But this makes them a prime candidate for their reproductive cycles to be affected by artificial light.
For their study, Dr Robert and her colleagues looked at two populations of wallabies on Garden Island off Western Australia.
Those in the north of the island live in native bushland, fenced off from those on the south of the island, which are exposed to lights from Australia's largest naval base, HMAS Sterling.
"The naval base is lit up like a Christmas tree," said Dr Robert.
The researchers took note of when the wallabies on both sites gave birth and used special GPS collars with light loggers to record how much light the animals were exposed to.
"We found that those on the naval base had massive levels of light, while those on the bushland site had only natural levels of light," Dr Robert said.
Finally, the researchers took blood samples and measured night time levels of the hormone melatonin, which rises in the dark and helps regulate the animal's body clock.
"We found those on the naval base had suppressed melatonin levels at night."
After five years of observations the researchers saw wallabies on the naval base were giving birth later.
"We noticed that the median birth date of wallabies on the naval base was a month later than those at the bushland site," said Dr Robert.
The findings support the idea that light pollution on the naval base is suppressing melatonin and "masking" the cue that wallabies would normally get from shortening day lengths.
The delay in the birth date could potentially have an impact on survival of the offspring if the mothers miss the peak in food resources when they most need it, said Dr Robert.
Although Dr Robert and her colleagues did not initially observe any effects on offspring, she said this was likely due to a complication in the study.
Irrigated lawns at the naval base provided a food source for the wallabies all year round and "buffered" the base animals from missing the peak in natural food resources, she said But, said Dr Robert, since the study was completed irrigation had ceased due to water restrictions and preliminary observations suggested this had had an impact on wallaby offspring.
"Mothers are abandoning their offspring when things get too hard," Dr Robert said.
The findings could also apply to Bennett's wallaby, and other animals such as bandicoots, antechinus, dunnarts and even Tasmanian devils.
Dr Robert said this problem could be compounded by a big push towards energy-efficient LED lighting.
"LED lights produce a wavelength of light that is in the blue spectrum, which has a higher negative impact on melatonin suppression," said Dr Robert, who is currently involved with an industry partner, developing "wildlife-friendly lights".
"We're now looking at producing LED lights that don't produce that wavelength," she said.
A wallaby and her child.
As we ease into the weekend, what better way to wind down than by looking at photos of cute wombats? We begin with the closest thing the world has to a celebrity wombat, Patrick. A resident and top attraction at Ballarat Wildlife Park in Victoria, Australia, Patrick comes by his fame thanks to his size. As you can see he's just honking enormous. He's also old, and fat -- oldest and fattest among all wombats, in fact, at 29 years old and 88 pounds at last check. Patrick has his own Facebook page, and he even has his own
. As tempting as it is to devote an entire gallery to Patrick, we promise we'll move on now and show you other wombats.
OK, we lied. He's too cute for just one slide. Here's Patrick not even hardly trying to look cute but succeeding at it anyway. The Ballarat Wildlife Park people say Patrick is so famous he's even been visited by actor Nicolas Cage. We'll pause a moment while you picture that for yourself.
OK, we lied, again. Last time, though, we promise. Here's Patrick chowing down. A wombat's gotta eat, after all. Wombats are herbivores and dine on various types of roots, bark and grass.
A sleeping wombat is a cute wombat. They're nocturnal creatures, so they catch most of their Zzzzs while it's light out.
Wombats are marsupials, toting around their young in pouches. Baby wombats spend nearly half of their first year in the mother's pouch. By the latter half of the year, though, they're ready to leave the pouch and make it on their own.
Wombats have razor-sharp incisors that grow throughout their lives, getting whittled back down to size when they're used to gnaw on rougher vegetarian fare.
Your run-of-the-mill wombat will be a bit more than 3 feet long and will weigh around 55 pounds.
There are two type of wombat: hairy-nosed and bare-nosed (also called common). They can live for anywhere from around 5 years in the wild to 30 years if they're in captivity. They're native strictly to Australia and a few nearby islands.
Wombats make their homes in burrows. They're strong and have very sharp claws that allow them to build often elaborate tunnel and chamber complexes, like the adjoining rooms of a house.
Unfortunately, their innate drive to make burrows makes wombats vulnerable to angry farmers and ranchers who take umbrage and the stocky little mammal's accidentally destructive ways. For this reason, they're often hunted. Watch your six, little fellas.