Wombats

Last updated: Wednesday 11 May, 2016

Common (Vombatus Ursinus)
Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons)
Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

They’re the world’s largest burrowing mammal. They normally waddle but can run 40km/h. Best of all, they have cube-shaped poo. Introducing… the wombat!

A Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Photo Steve Parish.
A Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Photo Steve Parish.
Wombats, the koala’s closest living relative, are only found in Australia. They’re marsupials with brown, tan or grey fur. From their stubby tail to their large skull, they can measure 1.3m long and weigh 36kg. 

They’re described as ‘stout’, ‘sturdy’ and ‘powerful’. They’re expert diggers, with short, muscular legs and sharp claws.

There are three subspecies of the Common Wombat (mainland, Tasmanian and Flinders Island) and two species of hairy-nosed wombats – the Northern Hairy-nosed and Southern Hairy-nosed (neither of them have hair on their noses, although there's short hair in their nostrils).

Where do Wombats live?

Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats on Bon Bon Reserve captured by a remote sensor camera.
Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats on Bon Bon Reserve captured by a remote sensor camera.
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat once had a broad range across the three eastern mainland Australian states. It’s now Endangered, restricted to only two sites in Queensland (including a recent re-introduction) and is considered one of the rarest mammals in the world. 

The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat is considered Near Threatened and its population is highly fragmented and declining across semi-arid parts of South Australia, with just a few records in Western Australia and NSW. 

The Common Wombat, once widespread throughout southern Australia, is now found in parts of eastern NSW, Victoria, south-eastern South Australia and Tasmania. It’s also an IUCN species of Least Concern.

Wombats inhabit a variety of habitats – forests, alpine mountains, heathlands and coastal shrublands. The Common Wombat prefers wetter forested areas, whereas the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat lives in more arid regions. 

A Common Wombat. Photo Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.
A Common Wombat. Photo Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.
All wombat species live in burrows, often creating complex networks of burrows with tunnels and chambers that can extend up to 150m in radius. 

Wombats excavate these burrows in well-drained soils, often near creeks and gullies. They dig soil with the long claws on their forelegs and push the soil out with their back legs. 

They then roll on their side and dig the walls. During the breeding season chambers become nests, softened with grass and leaf-litter. 

Most wombats are solitary but some burrows can house a colony of ten individuals. They’re happy to share burrows, but they're territorial about feeding grounds. They mark the boundary with scent trails and cube-shaped scats. When faced with an intruder, they grunt at the wombat, chase and bite at the ears and rump.

Behaviour

Wombats are nocturnal herbivores. They can travel 3km a night to eat grass, shoots, roots and shrubs. Like beavers, their incisors are continuously growing, so they need to gnaw on hardy material like bark to wear down their teeth. 

 

Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats are particularly well-suited to hot weather: they have a very low metabolic rate (it can take two weeks to digest a meal) and one of the lowest water requirements of any mammal.

As marsupials, female wombats care for their young in pouches on their underside. Like Bandicoots, the pouches open backwards so they don’t fill with soil while digging!

When first born, wombats weigh only one gram. The baby wombat leaves the pouch at about five months old, and can care for itself at seven months. Wombats can live up to 26 years in the wild.

Threats

In the past, countless wombats were killed for food, and by pastoralists who considered them vermin. All species are now protected across Australia, except in Victoria, where common wombats are still regarded as an agricultural pest, though permits are required to control their numbers.

Habitat loss and competition for food with introduced herbivores – rabbits, cattle, sheep and goats – are now the biggest threats for wombats. Sarcoptic mange, spread by foxes and dogs, can also kill entire colonies. 

While wombats don’t have many natural predators, they’re eaten by foxes, dingoes, wild-dogs , eagles, and Tasmanian devils. 

The wombat uses its tough, thick-skinned rump as protection: if threatened, they escape to their burrow and can crush the predator’s skull between their rump and the burrow’s roof. 

If startled, they can bowl over and deliver a nasty bite to humans. Best to admire these waddling wonders from afar!

What's Bush Heritage doing?

We’re very excited to have Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats on Bon Bon Reserve in remote South Australia. At Bon Bon we’ve reduced grazing competition by removing stock and ripping rabbit warrens. We’ve also set up motion-sensing cameras to monitor their activity. Common Wombats are found on Scottsdale and our Tasmanian reserves, where they're similarly protected.

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