Summer 2003
Marsupial of the Season

 

The Common Wombat
(Vombatus ursinus)

by
Bob Cleaver

please click on thumbnail to enlarge

General.

Like the Hairy-nosed, the Common Wombat is one of those critters that you just can’t help falling in love with, despite some of their bad habits and occasionally pugnacious nature.

 

Vombatus is derived from an Aboriginal word for wombat and ursinus from the Latin – bear.

 

There are a three extant subspecies:-

 

Vombatus ursinus ursinus – confined to Flinders Island

Vombatus ursinus tasmaniensis – confined to Tasmania and is generally a much smaller animal than its mainland cousin

Vombatus ursinus hirsutus – found in the south-eastern mainland.

  

Appearance

As with the Hairy-nosed they are rotund burrowing marsupials and have a very powerful musculature, short sturdy legs for digging, no neck to speak of, small somewhat rounded ears (much smaller than the ears on the Hairy-nose) and a rudimentary hairless tail around 25mm in length.   The female has a backward opening pouch which contains two teats.    Their eyes are quite small and they have triangular shaped head with a bare hairless nose, much like a dog.     Like the other wombat species their eyesight is not too good but they do have acute senses of smell and hearing and are very sensitive to ground vibrations.     Standing height is about 400mm and up to 1200mm in length with an adult mainland animal weighing in at around 40kgs.    The Tasmanian subspecies rarely reaches more than about 25kgs.     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 coarse fur (probably a better description would be hair rather than fur) which feels a bit like horse hair to the touch and generally brown in colour.   This brown colouring can vary right across the brown spectrum from a very dark chocolate brown through to a light sandy brown.    I know of no colour mutations.  

 

Distribution

These animals are found across much of the south eastern coastal and mountain regions of Australia.    Their range extends from Southern Queensland, through New South Wales, the A.C.T. (Australian Capital Territory), most of Victoria (except the north west of that State) and into the south east corner of South Australia.    They are also found on Flinders Island and are widespread in Tasmania.   

 

Habitat & Diet

The Common Wombat is quite common (as its name suggests) within its range and is found in areas of dry scleropyhll forest but can also be found in areas of open woodland, heath and coastal scrub.    For this reason it is often referred to as the Forest Wombat.    It is very similar to the other two species in its burrowing habits and nocturnal feeding forays but its diet and breeding pattern is quite different.   It is strictly herbivorous and will graze on a wide assortment of grasses and will drink regularly (unlike the hairy-nosed).     The cold does not seem to bother them but the heat they certainly does and they will not be seen at the surface during hot weather unless the animal has a problem.    They can occasionally be seen during the daytime in winter scratching for a feed through the snow and have even been seen taking a stroll along a deserted beach.

 

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”.     Just before leaving this subject I will say that the one big issue in containing these animals is that they can climb (and the Hairy-nosed cannot) so any enclosure must be built with this fact in mind.    Having studied these animals at close quarters for many years I believe that the reason these animals can climb (and conversely why the Hairy-nose cannot) is all in the paws – the front paws in particular.    The Common Wombat can make a ‘fist’ with it’s front paws which enables it to grasp and maintain a hold onto  an object – again the Hairy-nosed cannot do this.    Because of this they are able to climb over fences and a wire mesh enclosure will not hold these animals for long.

 

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 decreased this to three times a week.    However, the common does need a high proportion of green feed in its diet and will not appreciate the much more ‘Spartan’ diet of the Hairy-nosed.     They also seem to need to drink more regularly therefore a regular fresh water supply is necessary and they will dehydrate quite quickly if they have to go without water for extended periods (unlike the Hairy-nosed which can manage without water for many weeks).

 

The diet we use consists of carrots, apples, bread, occasionally rolled oats in the winter-time and a variety of green vegetable matter including Lucerne hay and grass when we can find it.    I also use a product called Capricorn Goat Meal (obtainable from any fodder store).

 

From my experience, the Common Wombat is less aggressive than the Hariry-nosed – although maybe that’s not strictly true I should say that they are less unpredicatable.     The Common seems to ‘telegraph his punches’ and you will have some warning of when to vacate the enclosure or leave him alone.

 

Breeding

Breeding can occur at anytime of the year with usually only one young being born after a gestation period of around thirty days.    I should add here that a pair of captive animals in The Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales have just produced twins.   A very rare event and they have my congratulations.

 

Mating occurs following an elaborate “dance” with the male chasing the female around in circles and figures of eight, whilst repeatedly ‘stabbing’ at her rump with his teeth.     If the female is ready to mate she will eventually succumb to his behaviour and will roll over on her side and copulation takes place.     The young will remain entirely confined to its mother's pouch for the next six to nine months.      Once the young have vacated the pouch they will remain close to mum and will be dependent on her for a further six months or so.    After weaning, young females will remain close to their home warren for a further twelve to eighteen months and possibly for the remainder of their lives.    Usually the males will be ostracised at an early age.

 

Defence

Apart from ‘man’ the Common wombat has few enemies.    Feral dogs, Dingoes, possibly foxes, habitat destruction but particularly disease would be the main candidates.     They are very susceptible to Mange which is widespread in this species and in the wild is usually fatal.     Their preferred method of defence is to run down the nearest burrow and will 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.

 

References

Strahan, Ronald (1983) edited by “The Complete Book of Australian Mammals” published by Angus & Robertson.

 

Cayley, Neville (1987) “What Animal is That” published by Angus & Robertson

 

Wells, R.T. & Pridmore, P.A. (1998) edited by; with assistance from B. St. John, M.D Gaughwin, and J. Ferris, “Wombats” published by Surrey Beatty & Sons in association with The Royal Zoological Society of South Australia Inc.

 

Austin, M.A “A Practical Guide to the Successful Hand Rearing of Tasmanian Marsupials” published by Regal Publications.

 

Triggs B. (1988) “The Wombat” Australian Natural History Series published by the UNSW Press

 

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