Wombats occur in southeastern Australia, and are reasonably widespread in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia. The northern hairy-nosed wombat (L. krefftii) is found just to the north of the tropic of Capricorn, and the southern hairy-nosed wombat (L. latifrons) has isolated populations in Western Australia.
The two species of hairy-nosed wombats live in open woodlands, shrublands, and grasslands in semi-arid habitats, and the southern hairy-nosed wombat extends into arid regions on the Nullarbor Plain. The common wombat lives in forests and woodlands in areas of higher rainfall.
Wombats dig by scratching with the forepaws and flinging soil behind them; the piled-up soil is then bulldozed clear of the burrow as the animal backs out of the entrance. Wombat burrows can be huge. They may consist of 98 ft (30 m) or more of tunnel length, and have several entrances as well as side tunnels and resting chambers. Warrens of the southern hairy-nosed wombat are particularly complex, and probably the same warren is used and expanded by many generations of wombats. The tunnels are wide enough to accommodate a lightly built adult human (no reasonable person would ever risk crawling down a wombat burrow, but a 15 year old boy explored many burrows of the common wom-
The common wombat (Vombatus ursinus) leaves its burrow at night to feed. (Photo by Mitch Reardon/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
bat in 1960 and wrote up his observations in a now-famous article in his school magazine).
Individuals usually feed alone, but in the southern hairy-nosed wombat many animals may share the same warren. Similarly, in the northern hairy-nosed wombat burrows occur in clusters, and a group of up to 12 wombats makes common use of each cluster of burrows. However, even when two individuals use the same burrow it seems that they occupy different sections of it. There is good evidence indicating that both the female northern hairy-nosed wombat and the female common wombat are more likely to disperse from their home burrow at some stage of their lives, while the males are more philopatric. This is unusual—in most mammals dispersal is male-biased. This suggests that the groups of individuals that occupy burrow clusters in the northern hairy-nosed wombat are composed of related males and unrelated females. It is still not known at what age females disperse in the common wombat, but in the northern hairy-nosed wombat dispersal has been observed by breeding adult females.
Wombats are specialized grazers. They have open-rooted teeth that grow throughout life, compensating for tooth wear caused by eating abrasive grasses. The jaws are massive, and deliver powerful, short chewing strokes that reduce their fibrous food to small particles. Gut capacity is large, and the colon is expanded to house cellulose-digesting microorganisms. Food is held in the gut for long periods (70 hours or so) to maximize the breakdown of fiber.
Wombats feed mainly at night, and rest deep in their burrows during the day. Their burrows provide them with refuge from such predators as dingoes and also with protection from extreme temperatures and dry conditions. Wombats have low basal metabolic rates; this, together with the slow rate of passage of food through the gut and the efficiency with which they digest their food, means that they spend less time feeding than other grazers of their body size and they can afford to spend most of their time in their burrows. Their home ranges are small for a herbivore of their body size, typically less than 49 acres (20 ha).
The single young is born after a gestation of about 22 days, and stays in the pouch for six to nine months. It remains dependent on its mother for at least a year after leaving the pouch. Wombats have backward-opening pouches. There is no evidence of pair-bonding and there is presumably competition among males for the opportunity to mate with females, but no details of this are known.
The common wombat and southern hairy-nosed wombat are secure, although the ranges of both species have contracted and fragmented since European settlement. The northern hairy-nosed wombat is extremely rare. It has only been recorded in historic times from three localities, and is
extinct from two of these as of the early twentieth century. Probably, the major cause of its decline was competition for pasture from sheep and cattle. The remaining population is protected within Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland. In 2000 the size of this last population was estimated to be 116 individuals. This species is classed as endangered under Queensland State legislation and Australian Federal legislation.
Wombats do not feature strongly in Aboriginal mythology. The southern hairy-nosed wombat and common wombat are sometimes regarded as pests of agriculture, because of the damage they cause to crops and fences. None of the species has commercial value. By and large, however, wombats are regarded with deep affection in Australia. They feature in many children's stories, beginning with Ruth Park's classic Muddle-Headed Wombat series from the 1960s. There was also a vogue for wombats in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti regarded them as "the most beautiful of God's creatures;" when one of his two pet wombats died in 1869 he commemorated it with a touching drawing entitled Self-portrait of the artist weeping at the wombat's tomb.
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