Spring 2002
Marsupial of the Season

 

The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat
(Lasiorhinus latifrons) 

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General.

There is something about this animal that seems to get under some peoples skin.    What it is, I do not know.    They have an endearing quality that is undeniable.    They have that something that just makes you want to pick them up and give them a big cuddle.    But be warned they are very heavy, extremely powerful and have formidable teeth.

There are three species of Wombat in Australia but here we will be dealing with the Southern Hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus latifrons) and with a reference to the Northern Hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus krefftii).

Lasiorhinus means ‘hairy nosed’ and is taken from the Greek lasios, hairy and rhis, nose - latifrons means ‘broad forehead’ and is taken from the Latin latus, broad and frons, forehead.

As you will all be aware from a recent article published in this journal on the Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), this animal is currently on the brink of extinction.   At the last count there were somewhere between 96 and 120 animals remaining but with an alarmingly high proportion of males to females (possibly 70%-30%).     The prognosis for the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons) however, is much better.     They are common within their range and seem to be safe (at least for the time being).    Ninety nine percent of the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat’s habitat is in South Australia and for this reason it was adopted as that States faunal emblem on the 27th of August 1970.    It is sometimes referred to as the Plains Wombat (If you look at their natural habitat range you will understand why).

Appearance

They are rotund burrowing marsupials with a very powerful musculature for digging, no neck to speak of, erect pointed ears about 75mm in length and a tiny tail of no more than 50mm long.   They have a backward opening pouch which contains two teats.    Their eyes are quite small and they have a squared off snout (as if they have run into something) which is covered in fine fur.     Their eyesight is not too good but they have acute senses of smell and hearing and are very sensitive to ground vibrations, all of which can make approaching them in the wild quite difficult.    The best way is to approach them from downwind and walk very slowly and quietly.    Using this method it is possible to get within a few metres of the animal before it suspects your presence and bolts for the nearest den entrance. Standing height is 3-400mm and about 1m in length with an adult animal weighing in at around 30kgs.     Their rump and lower back is an oval shaped area of very hard cartilage, about the size of a large dinner plate, and is used as a form of protection and defence.     They have very fine short fur which feels silky to the touch and ranges in colour from a silvery grey to almost black.   There are also other colours that have been noted from time to time.    For example, sandy brown, white, and combinations of these colours mixed with the more conventional silver grey, however these are quite rare. 

The major difference between the Southern and the Northern species is size (the Northern being somewhat larger) and the Northern lacks the white (or cream) eye patches of the Southern.

Distribution

There are five large colonies of the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat and six small isolated populations, all of which are in South Australia although the largest of them does extend into the far west of Western Australia.    This is what is generally known as the Ceduna or Nullabor Colony and covers a very large tract of land of several thousand square kilometres at the head of the Great Australian Bight.    It stretches roughly from Penong, west of Ceduna across to the West Australian border (and beyond) and very roughly from the coast to the railway line in width.    The second largest colony is what is known as the Murraylands (or Blanchetown) colony.    This is situated west of the River Murray with the small township of Blanchetown being approximately at its centre.    The northernmost boundary of this colony is an amorphous line somewhere north of Morgan; the southern boundary is the River Marne; the Eastern boundary is the River Murray and the western is the Northern Mount Lofty Ranges, although it would be unusual to see any animals close to the hills due to farming pressure.    There is a small colony on the Eyre Peninsula east of the coast near Elliston, two in the Gawler Ranges one near Lake Acraman and one near Lake Harris.    The six isolated populations can all be found in the north and east of Yorke Peninsula.

Habitat & Diet

The Hairy-Nosed Wombat lives in a flat to undulating country which incorporates many combinations of soil and vegetation types.    These regions are generally arid or semi arid and would become very hot during summer months.     Daytime temperatures will often exceed 40oC and fall to around freezing at night.    There will be mostly clay and/or sandy soils with a limestone substrate.    The animals find this substrate useful and will attempt to burrow beneath it if they can find an entry point; it provides them with a very stable environment during climate extremes at the surface.     These areas are often typified by the growth of mallee interspersed with open areas enabling the animals to graze on their preferred herbage.    They are strictly herbivorous and their favourite foods are native grasses, lichen and subsurface vegetation but during times of drought, they can be found to eat native species Maireana sedifolia (Blue Bush) and Sclerolaena spp. (which has numerous common names and is considered to be a weed species)..      Stand in any of their habitat areas in the middle of summer and look around.    You will wonder what on earth there is for them to eat.    You will be struck by the apparent barren-ness of some of these places.    But look more closely and will find little tiny strands of grass and lichen adhering to rocks, and if you scratch the surface you may even find more herbage lurking beneath the surface.    These animals have a cleft upper lip that allows them to eat the smallest of shoots very close to the ground despite their large teeth and powerful jaws.       It is quite amazing when you consider the size and strength of these animals but they have a very low metabolic rate and will extract every last little bit of nutrient and moisture from whatever they can ingest.    They generally only drink when it rains.

This is how they survive; and survive they do - providing their habitat is left undisturbed.

Captive Husbandry

Maintaining these animals in captivity is relatively easy.   The hard part is containing them and providing them with suitable accommodation, which will not be discussed here as we have already covered this issue at great length in earlier issues of “Keeping Marsupials”.

I have found that it is generally a good idea not to over feed them as they will just run to fat which will produce an unhealthy & unhappy animal.       We used to feed ours daily with one starvation day per week but over time we have now decreased this to three times a week.    However, they have always had access to some ‘green-pick’ (or in our case ‘brown-pick’).    The animals do not appear to have suffered for this, quite the contrary in fact; they all look fit and healthy and breed regularly each year.

The diet we use consists of carrots, apples, bread, occasionally rolled oats in the winter-time and a product called Capricorn Goat Meal (obtainable from any fodder store) and we have more recently introduced them to kangaroo pellets which they seem to enjoy.    Do not be tempted to use horse type feeds – the mineral content is too high.    We have also tried a number of dry feeds like oaten hay, Lucerne and meadow hay, all of which are generally ignored.    They may have a bit of a nibble at it when it is first put into their enclosure but most of the time it will just sit there and rot.    Fresh water should be provided on a regular basis but do not be concerned if the dish runs dry.    As mentioned earlier, in their natural habitat they only drink surface water after rain and if you study these areas you will see that rainfall is generally at a premium, especially in summer.    Consequently these animals can go for many weeks, even months sometimes, without a drink.     I am not suggesting you allow this to happen with your captive animals, all I am saying is that they will not be adversely affected if you forget to freshen up their water every day.    We find that our animals drink from their water bowls very rarely and will prefer to drinks from puddles on the ground when it rains, but when they do drink, they drink heaps!    We have often observed them standing at a puddle or water bowl for anything up to half an hour just drinking.  Mind you, they have a very short fleshy tongue so the intake of water would be very slow.     They will then ignore the water for weeks.

Handraised animals will often benefit from your company and will continue to ‘play’ with you for many years.    This presents problems of it’s own as they often like to ‘play’ using their teeth, so caution is advised.    If you are in an enclosure with any animal NEVER takes your eyes off it, however friendly it may be – you could live to regret it!

Breeding

Mating occurs from around August through to November/December and a single young measuring only 2cm in length is born between September and January.    There is some evidence to suggest that they produce two offspring but only one will survive as there is only has room for one young within the pouch.     The young will remain entirely confined to its mother's pouch for the next six to nine months.    Once the young has vacated the pouch it will not return but be placed in a safe haven somewhere underground where the mother will return to nurture it.    Some weeks following pouch emergence (from observations of my captive animals this would be ten to twelve weeks) the young will venture out with mum for increasing periods and continue to suckle while accustoming itself to adult food.      They will never stray far from the burrow entrance and often mum will go off on a foraging expedition but the young will remain at the burrow entrance.     Young male animals will be driven out at the end of their first year of independence but young females seem to be tolerated for much longer periods of time – even to adulthood.

Defence

Apart from man (or should I say person in this politically correct society of ours) the wombat has few, if any, predators    Feral dogs, Dingoes, possibly foxes and their own kind would be the main candidates and the wombats’ preferred method of defence is to run down the nearest burrow.     They use their keen senses of hearing and smell to detect potential predators and run from danger at speeds of up to 40kph.     Should a fox or dog follow the animal into a burrow; the Wombat will utilize the thick plate of cartilage on its rear in a powerful thrusting motion to throw off the offender.    This action is so powerful that any dog or fox that persists, flirts with the very real danger of having its head (or other body parts) crushed against the roof or walls of the burrow.

The main danger to their long term survival is disease and drought.

Conclusion

These are very endearing animals despite their somewhat pugnacious nature and I’m sure you must have heard the expression “the muddle headed wombat”, well they are far from muddle headed.    They are extremely intelligent and have the largest brain in relation to body size of any of the marsupials.

References

Strahan, Ronald edited by “The Complete Book of Australian Mammals” published by Angus & Robertson.

Cayley, Neville “What Animal is That” published by Angus & Robertson

Wells, R.T. & Pridmore, P.A. edited by; with assistance from St. John, B., Gaughwin, M.D. and Ferris, J. “Wombats” published by Surrey Beatty & Sons in association with The Royal Zoological Society of South Australia Inc.

 
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