Australia has wildlife like nowhere else on earth. The harshness of the environment has lead to animals evolving incredible adaptations not seen in other parts of the world. Marsupials are the native mammals of Australia. Instead of nourishing their young in an internal womb until birth, marsupials give birth to small, underdeveloped babies called joeys that are raised in a pouch. Kangaroos and koalas may hog the marsupial spotlight, but wombats are no less endearing or fascinating.
What is a wombat?
There are three species of living wombats: the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus), the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), and the southern hairy-nosed wombat (L. latifrons). Wombats are comparable in size to a medium dog, measuring three to four feet in length and weighing 40 to 70 pounds on average. They are stocky animals with short, plantigrade limbs ending in large, strong claws adapted for digging. Unlike most mammals, wombats do not have a pronounced tail. Their teeth resemble those of rodents in that they have only a single pair of incisors in each jaw, a pronounced diastema, and the teeth grow continuously throughout the animal’s lifetime. A female wombat’s pouch faces backwards to prevent soil getting in and disturbing the joey. Wombats are herbivorous and feed on a variety of low-lying vegetation. In the wild they live for around 15 years, but in captivity they can live to be over 20. The oldest wombat on record was 34.
Where do wombats live?
Wombats are adaptable animals and can be found in a wide variety of different habitats. Some live in forested areas, including rainforests, while some live in more open grassland or woodland habitat. They can be found in alpine elevations, dry scrubland, and along the coast. Wombats have even been seen in agricultural pastures grazing alongside domestic livestock. No matter where they live, wombats are primarily nocturnal and spend the day in the safety of their burrows. An average wombat burrow can be 60 to over 100 feet in length and extend as deep as a one-story house. Wombats can be surprisingly social animals, often living in groups of up to 10 animals that may be referred to as a wisdom, mob, or colony. Each burrow leads to a communal resting chamber, called a warren. Male wombats are often territorial with each other and establish a hierarchy with the largest, strongest male being the most dominant. Despite living socially, wombats are solitary feeders and typically communicate with each other via smell rather than vocalization.
How do wombats protect themselves from predators?
Wombats are on the menu for several Australian carnivores. Dingoes will readily eat them, as will Tasmanian devils. It is likely that the recently extinct thylacine also preyed on wombats, and prehistoric wombats of the Pleistocene had to fear attack from the marsupial lion, Thylacoleo. Despite their cute and cuddly appearance, wombats are not completely defenseless. If sufficiently motivated they accelerate nearly as fast as a horse, hitting speeds of 25 miles per hour that can be maintained for nearly a minute and a half. The typical wombat response to danger is to flee into the nearest burrow, where its thick hide and lack of a tail makes it difficult for a hungry predator to extricate. If the predator is foolish enough to follow the wombat into the burrow, then it must face its prey’s formidable natural weapons. Wombats can bite through rubber boots with little effort and their claws can inflict deep puncture wounds and slashes. The backside of a wombat is covered in a dense cartilage plate that, in addition to acting as a shield, can also double as an offensive weapon. It will use its armored rump to smash attackers against the tunnel roof and they have been known to fatally crush the skulls of dingoes and dogs. Wombats will also lash out with their strong legs, double-kicking with both hind feet in the manner of an equine.
Are wombats endangered?
The common wombat is classified as being of least concern, and the southern hairy-nosed wombat is considered near threatened. While both these animals remain numerous, their populations are scattered and fragmented through their range. The northern hairy-nosed wombat is critically endangered, with the entire population of roughly 230 animals all inhabiting a small patch of forest in Queensland. Thanks to human intervention, this population is slowly increasing. All three species of wombats are protected, but they are sometimes considered a pest by farmers who believe they compete with sheep and cattle for grazing sites and there are several instances where wombats have attacked and injured people. Wombats have never been heavily hunted and are most at risk from habitat loss, outbreaks of mange, competition with introduced rabbits, and invasive plants replaced their natural food supply.