The Koala’s closest living relative, wombats are among the largest burrowing mammals in the world. They normally waddle but can run 40kph. Best of all, they have cube-shaped poo!
Wombats are endemic to (only found in) Australia. They’re marsupials with brown, tan or grey fur and from their stubby tails to their large skulls they can measure 1.3m long and weigh 36kg.
Often described as ‘stout’, ‘sturdy’ or ‘powerful’, they’re expert diggers with short, muscular legs and sharp claws.
There are three subspecies of the Common or Bare-nosed Wombat (Vombatus Ursinus) – mainland, Tasmanian and Flinders Island.
There are two species of hairy-nosed wombats – the Northern Hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus krefftii) and Southern Hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus latifrons). Neither of them have hair on their noses, although there's short hair in their nostrils.
Where do wombats live?
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat once had a broad range across the three eastern mainland Australian states. It’s now critically 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 Bare-nosed or Common Wombat, once widespread throughout southern Australia, is now found in parts of eastern NSW, Victoria, south-eastern South Australia and Tasmania. The name implies there are a lot around but in truth they're in decline, although they're listed by the IUCN as a species of Least Concern.
Wombats inhabit a variety of habitats – forests, alpine mountains, heathlands and coastal shrublands. The Bare-nosed Wombat prefers wetter forested areas, whereas the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat lives in more arid regions.
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 it out with their back legs. They then roll on their sides to 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.
Like their relatives, Koalas, they sleep a lot – around 16 hours a day. They’re happy to share burrows, but they're territorial about feeding grounds. They mark the boundary with scent trails and cube-shaped scats.
Why cubes? Wombats have a very long digestive process that normally takes 14 to 18 days. It has a very long digestive tract, to absorb the most nutrients and water possible, which means their digestive matter is very dry and compacted.
Wombats are nocturnal herbivores with fairly poor eyesight – they rely on smell to navigate and find food. Marking their territory with scats is important to avoid conflict. When faced with an intruder, they grunt at the wombat, chase and bite at the ears and rump.
They can travel 3km a night to eat grass, shoots, roots and shrubs (watch some eating take place below). 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 to wombats
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 Bare-nosed 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, sometimes 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.
Wombats use their tough, thick-skinned rumps as protection: if threatened, they escape to their burrow and can crush a 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 proud 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. Bare-nosed Wombats are found on Scottsdale and our Tasmanian reserves, where they're similarly protected.
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