Wombats are without a doubt (in my extremely biased opinion) the most lovable of Australia's many marsupials. They are large enough to substitute for your average family dog and are just as playful - at least while they're young. It must be said however that Wombats don't automatically do well in captivity and only a handful would make a suitable pet. Please don't write to me asking where you can buy one! You can't. I don't reply to such emails. In particular anyone outside Australia should realize that there is a good chance that any Australian fauna that you might come upon has been smuggled out of this country. A high proportion of smuggled fauna dies in transit. Don't buy Australian fauna unless you are certain it has been obtained legally. Otherwise you are just helping the murderers.
There are three species of Wombats. The most numerous and widespread is the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus ). This animal is found from the Queensland/New South Wales border, around the coastal (not usually in the dry interior) band through to South Australia. It prefers forest covered hill or mountainous areas that provide both good hillsides to burrow in to and native grasses to eat. Adult wombats are BIG. They can weigh in at 40kg although 30kg is more common. They are very strong and determined animals which sometimes gets them into trouble with farmers. Presented with a fence they will often push their way through and leave a hole large enough for less desirable intruders such as Dingoes and rabbits. While Wombats are a protected species, there are still some areas particularly in Victoria where they are shot as vermin. There is a subspecies of the Common Wombat which is now only found on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. It was found on other Bass Strait islands but is now extinct there. It is smaller than its mainland cousin and has the scientific name Vombatus ursinus ursinus.
The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latrifrons) is an arid climate animal and only lives in a few areas of southern South Australia and Western Australia. Its range was much wider before European settlement. It is well adapted to it's harsh environment where it must survive without water in high temperatures. The available food tends to be fibrous and low in water and protein. It lives in extensive warrens where the atmosphere is cool and humid during the hot daytime. Its body temperature falls to conserve both energy and water. The resting metabolic rate is slower than Common Wombats and food is thoroughly ground up and passes very slowly through the gut (8 days) for maximum nutrient extraction. Its burrow system is more social than for Common Wombats where 5 to 10 animals consisting of both sexes may live together. A warren system consists of a central set of burrows often occupied by the males and smaller warrens within about a 150m radius where females reside for varying periods. Hairy-nosed Wombat breeding is more seasonal and male aggressive behaviour is usually restricted to that season. Young are usually born September to December and spend the next six to nine months in the pouch. Sexual maturity occurs at about 3 years of age. Hairy-nosed Wombats require a minimum of three good seasons to increase their population. In arid areas this is not common, so it pays to be long lived (and patient) to make the most of the good times when they occur.
The third species is the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) which would have to be considered to be on the brink of extinction. The fossil record indicates that this animal was once widespread in inland Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. By the beginning of this century the only two known populations were near Deniliquin in southern New South Wales and in the Moonie River area of Queensland. These animals died out in a drought early in the 1900s. This was probably not due to drought alone but to competition from introduced grazing animals such as cattle and sheep. The Wombats have a narrower preference of food species. At this stage extinction was assumed. In 1937 a small population was discovered in Epping Forest in Queensland near Clermont. It took until 1982 (to our shame) to exclude cattle from their area and give them a chance to increase in number. In 1971 there were only 35 individuals counted, but 1995 there were about 80. A recent report suggested this number had dropped again to about 60 but this is unconfirmed. They will remain in great danger of extinction until there are sufficient numbers to repopulate other areas, since a single location is too vulnerable to a chance catastrophe that may wipe them out.
Let me say right from the start (from personal experience) Wombats are smart. They have a large brain and they know how to use it. They are frolicsome and will play with what seems like inexhaustible energy. They are also quite fast afoot, able to run at around 40 km/hr. They are particularly fast and smart when a packet of chocolate biscuits is about to be put out of reach. (First rule of Wombat keeping - never get between a Wombat and a source of chocolate biscuits. Remember you can't out-run it, you almost certainly can't out-wrestle it, but you will be stream-rolled by it. So if it comes to a choice of being assaulted by a Wombat or giving up your favorite biscuits, surrender the biscuits, it's less painful.) Note the Wombat in the photo is running straight at the camera and appears to have all legs off the ground!! They really can run. Fortunately for the photographer (me), the wombat (Brutus) was only young at the time and was responding to my call, not the irresistible smell of chocolate biscuits.
Wombats as everyone knows dig holes, big holes. Their burrows may extend up to 20 or 30m long. Shorter burrows (2 to 5m.) are made and used as well. They are usually made by digging into a hillside or creek slope. They are dug with the short flattened claws of the strong front legs. The back legs are used to pushed loose earth and rocks out of the way. The burrow is enlarged by lying on the side and scratching out the sides and roof. (Second rule of Wombat keeping - Never keep a Wombat in a Mudbrick house. They will lie on their sides and while away the hours digging through your walls.) They occupy these burrows during the daytime usually alone, but sometimes shared with other individuals. Wombats may share burrows depending on ranges but usually at different times. An individual may visit up to four burrows per night. Any dog or fox insane enough to chase a Wombat into its burrow risks being crushed to death between the wall of the burrow and 30kg or so of solid muscle.
While Wombats are generally nocturnal they will sometimes come out during a winters day to make the most of some sunshine. They eat native grasses, and roots, sedges and chocolate biscuits. Unfortunately for them, chocolate biscuit plants are quite rare.
The photograph shows a young Wombat in a peaceful moment of gastronomic bliss. The dish is straight grass without the usual issue of bottled milk or biscuits. It should be said at this point for all those who might misunderstand, that sweet biscuits are generally bad for wombat's (and most other marsupial's) teeth. Wombats have either not heard this, or they don't care. As an adaptation to biscuit eating (or is it that their natural diet tends to be high in silica and wears their teeth down?), wombats have rootless teeth that grow continuously throughout their lifetime (rather like rodents).
Breeding (Wombat nookie)
Wombats are rather like us, they breed anytime. Females have a rear opening pouch with two nipples although usually only one young is raised at a time. Wombats communicate their Junior will remain in the pouch for about six months before it is either kicked out or leaves peacefully. It will then follow its mother for nearly another year. Having raised a young wombat I have some sympathy for mother wombats. The young tend to play biting games that must drive the mothers crazy (see page on Brutus). Young Wombats mature sexually at about two years and can expect to live at least 5 years or more. Wombats in captivity can live long lives of around twenty years. An adult wombat has few natural enemies, the Dingo probably being the main predator. Humans and their cars account for many wombat deaths per year but where humans are scarce wombat numbers are limited by the availability of food. Wombats have a home territory which, depending on the environment may be anything from 5 to 25 hectares. Territories are marked and defended with scent markings, burrows and aggressive behaviour. Male Wombats will go through a threat display if an unwelcome (wombat) visitor trespasses on a favoured feeding ground by swinging his head from side to side, showing and gnashing his teeth, and growling. This will often be sufficient to drive away a rival, but wombat fights can occur and considerable damage can result from powerful bites.
All photographs are original and copyright ©.
Comments and mail to : Rob Schrieber
1. The Australian Museum Complete Book of Australian Mammals - Ed. R. Strahan