(Common & Hairy-nosed) What is a Wombat?
General Description of Wombats
The wombat is a somewhat pudgy nocturnal herbivorous burrowing marsupial mammal. That is to say; it is mainly active during the night, eats plants, shelters in a barrow underground, raises its young in a pouch on its abdomen (tummy) and feeds its babies milk. It is found only in Australia. It looks like a baby bear, but it is in no way related to a bear. Its closest living relative is the koala. With a relatively large brain, it is also believed to be the smartest marsupial. Male and female wombats have a similar appearance. and they live for approximately 15 years.
Wombats is very shy animals. You would rarely see them in the wild. They are territorial and solitary animals. That is, they mark out their home range by rubbing their scent on trees and by scattering their dropping throughout their home range and live within this range on their own. Usually wombats are quiet but grunt loudly at intruders.
How Big is a Wombat?
The wombat is about 71 to 119 cm in length, 36 cm tall and weighs about 35kgs. Some can weigh as much as 50kgs. It is the largest burrowing mammal in the world and the second largest marsupial after the kangaroo.
Other Characteristics of the Wombat
The wombat's thick soft fur can vary in colour from light brown to black. It has a large head with a thick snout, thick whiskers and short stumpy legs with sharp claws which its uses to tunnel underground. Wombats have small eyes with poor eyesight but compensate for this with an excellent sense of smell and hearing. They can also detect very small ground vibrations.
The wombat has a round sloping rear-end with an extremely tiny tail, measuring around 2cm. Its back is covered with very thick skin which is also extremely hard. When attacked, in or out of its burrow, the wombat points its hard well-padded rear at the attacker to protect itself.
Wombats have two incisor teeth on each of their upper and lower jaws. These teeth as well as the molar teeth growth throughout the animal's life compensating for the wear and tear on them as the animals.
Backward Facing Pouch
The female wombat's pouch entrance faces backwards. This adaptation prevents dirt from entering the pouch when the animal is digging and also because the wombat has very low ground clearance it prevents the young baby from hitting obstacles or getting entangled in vegetation when the wombat runs.
These animals normally walk very slowly but can gallop as fast as 40 kph for short periods when they want to. They can also swim.
How the Wombat Got its Name
Early European settlers referred to these animals as badgers because they were about the same size and behaved like that animal back in Europe. A white settler, named John Price, first wrote about this animal in 1798 and called it a 'Whom-batt'. He was using a name used by the Dharuk Aboriginal people who once lived in the area that is now the city of Sydney, They called this animal a 'wambad'.
Did you know that even though wombat species are related, the hairy-nosed wombat is genetically very different from the common wombat? Their genetic codes are around 8% different. This difference in genes is greater than that between humans and chimpanzees which is only 2% different.
Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)
The common wombat, also known as the bare-nosed wombat, is the only surviving member of the species Vombatus.
It has shorter ears, a narrower snout, rougher fur and a no hair in its nose. Its front paws are more dexterous than that of the hairy-nosed variety. This allows the common wombat to grasp vegetation to rip it out of the ground.
Common wombats, also known as bare-nosed wombats, have a bare pointed nose, small ears and coarser brown fur. They average about 30kg in weight (22–39kg). Common wombats are nocturnal during the summer, but in winter often come out of their burrows during the day to feed and sun themselves.
Hairy-nosed Wombat (Two Types)
There are two types of Hairy-nosed wombats. They have larger ears, a hairier nose as the name suggests, have slightly longer heads with squarer snouts and softer fur than the common wombat. These wombat are genetically very different from their distant cousins the common wombats.
Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) is the largest of the three species of wombats, measuring up to a meter in length and weighing up to 32 kilos. They are only found in a very small area of Queensland and are critically endangered. Only about 200 survive in the wild. They were once found throughout the arid inland parts of Victoria and all the way up to Queensland.
Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons) is the smallest of the wombat species. An adult weighing about 23 kilos. Prefers the coastal and high country of south-eastern Australia. They are the most adapted to arid climates.
Wombat Distribution Around Australia
The common wombat lives in temperate forests and grasslands of eastern Australia extending from Queensland to southern parts of Victoria and all of Tasmania. It is one of the few marsupials that will venture above the snowline in some of the mountainous areas of New South Wales and Victoria. (Red areas of map).
The northern hairy-nosed wombat is only found in a very small area of east-central Queensland in semi-arid grasslands and eucalypt woodlands. (Little purple dot on map). This species of wombat is critically endangered.
The southern hairy-nosed wombat is only lives in parts of southern South Australia and south-western Western Australia in semi-arid grasslands and eucalypt woodlands. (Green area on map).
Wombat Home Range
The home range of both male and female wombats is typically about 18 ha, with an inner core area of around 3 ha and circular in shape. This home range size is considered a comparatively small area for an animal of its size; but given its low-energy lifestyle this area provides it all the food its needs. Wombat ranges may overlap with that of others, but they do not actively defend their territories; they just keep out of each other's way.
Wombats are very fond of their burrows which can be quite extensive and up to 20m long. They spend up to two-thirds of their lives them. Wombats dig their burrows into slopes, gullies and creeks.
The wombat hollows out its burrow by digging with its front legs while pushing the dirt out with its rear feet. It digs the sides and ceiling of its tunnels by lying on its side and using is front feet. It has very strong legs and flat claws for digging.
A wombat can have up to twelve burrows scattered around its home range with three or four serving as its main residence. These main burrows are more elaborate with many sub-tunnels, sleeping quarters and entrances. A wombat typically spends 1–4 days sleeping in the same burrow and then moves to another. It also appear to share burrows. It is not certain if there is any family connection between these sharing wombats.
Wombats are nocturnal grazing herbivores that usually come out after dark to feed. In cooler months they may also come out during the day. Their main food is native grasses, roots and tree bark. Because of its rough diet, a wombat's teeth grow continuously as they are worn down by its rough diet and digging. Wombats graze for between three to eight hours a day.
Wombats have a very low metabolic rate.
Wombat droppings (poo) is called a "scat". The wombat leaves it outside its barrow as a scent signal to find its way back in the dark and to signal to other wombats that the barrow is occupied.
OK, let’s talk about wombat poop (poo). So why does the wombat have cube-shaped faeces?
The wombat is a nocturnal animal with poor eyesight. But it has a very good sense of smell. It is also and animal that prefers to live alone and reacts very badly when other wombats encroach on its territory. So in order to keep the peace, wombats have evolved a unique signalling mechanism. It's with their poop (known as scats). This poop is like an animal business card. It tells other animals the owner's age, sex, sexual maturity, general health and what type of wombat it is. Wombats aren't unique in using their faeces as a signal. Other animals do this too. The uniqueness of a wombat’s poo is that it is cube-shaped.
Why Poo Cubes?
The reason seems to be that the cube-shape is more visible and with its unique six-sided shape it doesn't roll off the strategic perches the wombat deposits it; which is usually on top of logs, rocks, or whatever else its finds handy as well as around its burrows. By pooping in strategic locations around its territory a wombat is signalling other wombats to stay away. The wombat drops between eighty to ninety of these cubed scats a day. Each deposit is of about four to eight cubes.
How a Wombat Makes Poo Cubes
No, the wombat doesn't have a square-nozzled anus and poop slicer. The real reason for the cube-shaped poop is that the wombat has a very long digestive cycle. As material passes through its ridged digestive tract all possible moisture and nutrients are exacted and the remaining material becomes extremely compacted and dry. Having being shaped in this ridged intestine the faeces enters the lower part of the intestine and retains its compact dry cube shape which is then defecated. Now you know how the cube is made.
Wombats become sexually mature at about 2 years of age and usually breed between October and January when there is plenty of vegetation and the weather is mild.
Courtship consists of the male wombat chasing the female in wide circles, biting her on her rump and rolling her over on her side for coitus.
The gestation period for wombats is 20-30 days. The young neophyte, no bigger than a jelly-bean and weighing just a half a gram exits from its mother's birth canal and crawls up into her rearward-facing pouch. There it latches onto a nipple and remains hidden and growing for around 6-10 months. After this time it will venture out of its pouch to feed with its mother and is fully independent 8-10 months later. A baby wombat is called a "joey".
Wombats have a number of adaptations that makes them more suitable for the harsh and arid Australian environment.
• Burrowing Behaviour - Keeps them cool during the hot Australian daytime.
• Rear-facing Pouch Opening - Prevents dirt from entering the pouch when burrowing underground.
• Strong Digging Claws - For digging
• Low Metabolic Rate - Means it needs relatively little food compared to other animals.
• Continuous Teeth Growth - Allows to eat rough gritty vegetation because teeth wear is being compensated for.
The major threats to the wombat today are dingoes, foxes and humans. When threatened a wombat will flee to the nearest burrow. If a predator follows it into the burrow the wombat will defend itself by smashing the attackers head against the roof or wall of the burrow with its hard well-protected rump.
Wombats are protected in all sates of Australia except Victoria.
• Not Threatened or Endangered - common wombat and southern hairy-nosed wombats
• Critically Endangered - northern hairy-nosed wombat.
Wombats are docile solitary wild animals that will avoid people. They are not suitable for domestic pets.
While wombats may look cute and cuddly, especially when young, they can be quite aggressive, unpredictable and even dangerous when they get older. A large wombat is a very strong animal. It can easily knock you over and even claw or bite you if provoked. A determined wombat can easily knock down or burrow under fences, doors and even walls.
Wombats are best left in the wild. In most states in Australia is it illegal to have a wombat as a pet.
Fossil records show that there were once massive wombats living in Australia. The biggest of these was the Giant Wombat (Phascolonus gigas) which was two meters in length and weighed between 180 to 250 kgs. They were as tall as a human. These animals were so large that they, unlike present day wombats, didn't burrow underground, but instead lived their entire lives above ground. These animals became extinct about 40,000 years ago. Two reasons have been suggested for their extinction, alone with other mega-fauna in Australia. The first is climate change where Australia became drier and more arid depriving these huge animals of their food supply. The second is that early Aborigines may have hunted down these huge slow moving animals hastening their extinction.
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