Where Do Wombats Get Their Name From?
Common Wombat is the only living member of its genus Vombatus ursinus, and is similar in appearance to two remaining wombat species (Southern and Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats) belonging to the genus Lasiorhinus. The main differences are the absence of hair on the nose in the Common Wombat, its coarser hair and narrower nasal bones than in Lasiorhinus. In the early descriptions of the species by the Europeans, wombats have been linked to badgers, beavers, pigs and bears (it is because of its bear-like appearance that it has been named ursinus (Latin ursus, bear)). However, other than being a mammal, the wombat is not related to these animals: wombats are marsupials (the young develop in mother’s pouch) and not placentals, like the other aforementioned mammals.
Wombats are Australian marsupials; they are short-legged, muscular quadrupeds, approximately one metre in length and with a very short tail. Wombats, like all the larger living marsupials, are part of the Diprotodontia. The ancestors of modern wombats evolved sometime between 55 and 26 million years ago (no useful fossil record has yet been found for this period) and about 12 species flourished until well into the ice ages. Among the several diprotodon (giant wombat) species was the largest marsupial to ever live. The earliest human inhabitants of Australia arrived while diprotodons were still common, and are believed to have brought about their extinction through hunting or habitat alteration.
The name wombat comes from the Eora Aboriginal community who were the original inhabitants of the Sydney area. Wombats have Alternative name/s too: Naked-nosed Wombat, Island Wombat, Tasmanian Wombat, Forest Wombat, Coarse-haired Wombat.
Wombats dig extensive burrow systems with rodent-like front teeth and powerful claws. Although mainly crepuscular and nocturnal, wombats will also venture out to feed on cool or overcast days. They are not as easily seen as many animals, but leave ample evidence of their passage, treating fences as a minor inconvenience to be gone through or under and leaving distinctive cubic scats. Wombats are herbivores, their diet consisting mostly of grasses, sedges, herbs, bark and roots.
Like other marsupials, wombats give birth to tiny, undeveloped young that crawl into pouches on their mothers’ bellies. A wombat baby remains in its mother’s pouch for about five months before emerging. Even after it leaves the pouch, the young animal will frequently crawl back in to nurse or to escape danger. By about seven months of age, a young wombat can care for itself. Wombats have an extraordinarily slow metabolism, taking around 14 days to complete digestion, and generally move slowly. When required, however, they can reach up to 40 km/h and maintain that speed for up to 90 seconds.
When attacked, they can summon immense reserves of strength — one defense of a wombat against a predator (such as a Dingo) underground is to crush it against the roof of the tunnel until it stops breathing. Its primary defence is its toughened rear hide with most of the posterior made of cartilage which, combined with its lack of a meaningful tail, presents a difficult-to-bite target to any enemy who follows the wombat into its tunnel. One naturalist commented, that a predator biting into a wombat’s rear would find it “comparable to the business end of a toilet brush”.
Unlike a lot of Australian marsupial wildlife, wombats appear to have little fear of humans. They can be awkwardly tamed in a captive situation, and even coaxed to be patted and held. Many parks, zoos and other tourist set-ups across Australia have wombats for show to the public. They are quite popular in the zoos they are present in.
However, this lack of fear also means that they may display acts of aggression if provoked, or if they are simply in a bad mood. Its sheer weight makes a charging wombat capable of knocking a man over, and their sharp teeth and powerful jaws can result in severe wounds. The naturalist Harry Frauca once received a bite 2 cm deep into the flesh of his leg—through a rubber boot, trousers and thick woollen socks (Underhill, 1993).
Wombats, while they look cute and cuddly when small, do not make good pets in the long run. They are solitary animals and prefer to stay that way when older. Today the wombat is considered to be an endangered species of animal. Wombat numbers have been decreasing rapidly due to habitat loss and hunting by humans who believe the wombat and it’s network of underground tunnels to be an agricultural pest.