Today is Wombat Day in Australia, an unofficial celebration of a marsupial that can hardly be said to be emblematic of the country worldwide, but is, nonetheless, celebrated in numerous ways. On the radio when I was a boy there was the muddleheaded wombat, for example (who had a red bicycle that once tried to bite him – it treely ruly did!!). Wombats are short-legged, muscular quadrupedal marsupials that are native to Australia. They are about 1 m (40 in) in length with small, stubby tails. There are three extant species and they are all members of the family Vombatidae. They are adaptable and habitat tolerant, and are found in forested, mountainous, and heathland areas of south-eastern Australia, including Tasmania, as well as an isolated patch of about 300 ha (740 acres) in Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland.
Wombats dig extensive burrow systems with their rodent-like front teeth and powerful claws. One distinctive adaptation of wombats is their backward pouch. The advantage of a backward-facing pouch is that when digging, the wombat does not gather soil in its pouch over its young. Although mainly crepuscular and nocturnal, wombats may also venture out to feed on cool or overcast days. They are not commonly seen, but leave ample evidence of their passage, treating fences as minor inconveniences to be gone through or under, and leaving distinctive cubic feces.
Wombats are herbivores; their diets consist mostly of grasses, sedges, herbs, bark, and roots. Their incisor teeth somewhat resemble those of rodents, being adapted for gnawing tough vegetation. Like many other herbivorous mammals, they have a large diastema between their incisors and the cheek teeth, which are relatively simple.
Female wombats give birth to a single young in the spring, after a gestation period, which like all marsupials can vary, in the case of the wombat: 20–21 days. They have well-developed pouches, which the young leave after about six to seven months. Wombats are weaned after 15 months, and are sexually mature at 18 months. A group of wombats is known as a wisdom (in textbooks only), a mob, or a colony. Wombats typically live up to 15 years in the wild, but can live past 20 and even 30 years in captivity.The longest-lived captive wombat lived to 34.
Wombats have an extraordinarily slow metabolism, taking around eight to 14 days to complete digestion, which aids their survival in arid conditions. They generally move slowly. When threatened, however, they can reach up to 40 km/h (25 mph) and maintain that speed for up to 90 seconds. Wombats defend home territories centered on their burrows, and they react aggressively to intruders. The common wombat occupies a range of up to 23 ha (57 acres), while the hairy-nosed species have much smaller ranges, of no more than 4 ha (10 acres).
Dingos and Tasmanian devils prey on wombats. Extinct predators were likely to have included Thylacoleo and possibly the thylacine. Their primary defense is their toughened rear hide, with most of the posterior made of cartilage. This, combined with its lack of a meaningful tail, makes it difficult for any predator that follows the wombat into its tunnel to bite and injure its target. When attacked, wombats dive into a nearby tunnel, using their rumps to block a pursuing attacker. A wombat may allow an intruder to force its head over the wombat’s back, and then use its powerful legs to crush the skull of the predator against the roof of the tunnel, or drive it off with two-legged kicks, like those of a donkey.
Depiction of the animals in rock art are exceptionally rare, though examples estimated to be up to 4,000 years old have been discovered in the Wollemi National Park. The wombat is depicted in aboriginal Dreamtime as an animal of little worth. The mainland stories tell of the wombat as originating from a person named Warreen whose head had been flattened by a stone and tail amputated as punishment for selfishness. In contrast, the Tasmanian aboriginal story first recorded in 1830 tells of the wombat (known as the drogedy or publedina) the great spirit Moihernee had asked hunters to leave alone. In both cases, the wombat is regarded as having been banished to its burrowing habitat. Estimates of wombat distribution prior to European settlement are that numbers of all three surviving species were prolific and that they covered a range more than ten times greater than that of today.
The name ‘wombat’ comes from the now nearly-extinct Darug language spoken by the aboriginal Darug people, who originally inhabited the Sydney area. It was first recorded in January 1798, when John Price and James Wilson, a European colonist who had adopted aboriginal ways, visited the area of what is now Bargo, New South Wales. Price wrote:
We saw several sorts of dung of different animals, one of which Wilson called a Whom-batt, which is an animal about 20 inches high, with short legs and a thick body with a large head, round ears, and very small eyes; is very fat, and has much the appearance of a badger.
Wombats were often called badgers by early settlers because of their size and habits. Because of this, localities such as Badger Creek, Victoria, and Badger Corner, Tasmania, were named after the wombat. The spelling went through many variants over the years, including ‘wambat’, ‘whombat’, ‘womat’, ‘wombach’, and ‘womback’, possibly reflecting dialectal differences in the Darug language.
Wombat meat has been a source of bush food from the arrival of aboriginal Australians to the arrival of Europeans. Due to the protection of the species, wombat meat as food is no longer part of mainstream Australian cuisine, but wombat stew was once a truly Australian dish. In the book Wombat Stew, Dingo catches a fat wombat and decides to make him into a stew for his lunch. To save Wombat from the stewpot the other animals make sure that Dingo’s stew turns out to be very nasty before Wombat is added to the pot. I wouldn’t be surprised if wombat stew is nasty anyway. I’ve never had it but the meat is likely to be fatty and tough – like eating a raccoon or badger, perhaps. I have eaten raccoon – once – and there will be no repeat performance.