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Jul 13, 2009


One of Australia’s most engaging marsupials, the wombat is also one of the most disparaged and least understood. Often depicted as slow, muddle-headed and clumsy, it can, in fact, outpace a human or a dog over a short distance. Wombats are quick to learn and superbly adapted to their burrowing way of life.

This book gives a full account of how wombats live and the many hazards they face. Dealing mainly with the bare-nosed wombat, Vombatus ursinus, it also includes information on the southern hairy-nosed wombat, Lasiorhinus latifrons, as well as the northern hairy-nosed wombat, Lasiorhinus krefftii, which is one of the world’s most endangered animals. The book also gives practical advice on rearing orphan wombats.

Completely revised, this new edition has over 100 illustrations, including 23 colour plates and drawings by Peter Schouten.

Jul 13, 2009

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Wombats - Barbara Triggs




© Barbara Triggs 2009

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO PUBLISHING for all permission requests.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Triggs, Barbara.

Wombats / Barbara Triggs.

2nd ed.

9780643096011 (pbk.)

Includes index.




Published by


150 Oxford Street (PO Box 1139)

Collingwood VIC 3066


Front cover

Bare-nosed wombat. Photo © Dave Watts.

Back cover

Northern hairy-nosed wombat (left) and southern hairy-nosed wombat (right).

Photos © Dave Watts.

Set in 10.5/14 Adobe Palatino, Optima and Stone Sans

Edited by Janet Walker

Cover and text design by James Kelly

Typeset by Desktop Concepts Pty Ltd, Melbourne

Printed in Hong Kong by Bookbuilders

CSIRO PUBLISHING publishes and distributes scientific, technical and health science books, magazines and journals from Australia to a worldwide audience and conducts these activities autonomously from the research activities of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, the publisher or CSIRO.



1            Evolution and early history

2            The wombat itself

3            Burrows

4            What goes on in a burrow?

5            Life above ground

6            From birth to maturity

7            Dangers, disorders and disasters

8            Wombats in the wardrobe

Appendix 1: Growth and development

Appendix 2: Hand-rearing orphan wombats

References and further reading



When the revised edition of The Wombat was published in 1996 I bemoaned the fact that wombats were the ‘poor relations’ when it comes to scientific research. Thankfully, this has been rectified to a certain extent and much more is now known about the secret lives of the three species of wombats. In this book I have tried to include this new information. Much of the text deals with the bare-nosed wombat but wherever possible I have added information on the two hairy-nosed species.

Early in my investigations in the 1970s I discovered that wombats are not easy animals to study. Much of their lives are spent underground, and even when they are active above ground it is usually dark or nearly so. They are also extremely wary and have an excellent sense of smell and acute hearing, but I found that if I stood absolutely still, downwind, they would be unaware of my presence. Following them through the forest undergrowth so that I was close enough to see what they were doing required much patience and stealth and was often unsuccessful. There is also considerable difficulty in observing social interactions between animals that spend most of their time either alone or deliberately avoiding one another.

Field studies of mammals, particularly nocturnal ones, are usually carried out by first catching or trapping the animals and tagging them in some way, so that individuals can be recognised at a distance or when retrapped. Radio-collars or similar devices are often attached to some of the animals and their movements monitored by radio-tracking. Much of the information about wombats has been gathered in this way, and, more recently, by remote censusing, which involves genetic research.

Not having the resources or the expertise needed to obtain and use any of these methods in my studies of wombats, I relied on knowing the wombats so well that I could identify them, even in poor light. This is surprisingly easy – every wombat has enough individual characteristics that can be used to distinguish it from any other wombat, such as coat colour, scars on various parts of the body, size and face shape. It is also often possible to determine the sex of a wombat without having to trap it. Females with large pouch young or young at heel are easily identified, while males can usually be spotted when they sit down to scratch, as the large scrotum is often visible at that time. The occasional use of night-vision equipment and, more often, a red-light torch, helped my observations and I recorded the wombats’ movements and behaviour on simple check sheets and a tape-recorder.

My method had, and still has, many drawbacks. Following an animal in the forest at night is sometimes hazardous and often uncomfortable, but it is also deeply satisfying. There is a special thrill, a kind of magic, about watching animals in the wild when they are unaware of our presence or are indifferent to it. In the 1990s I visited an area in northern Tasmania where the wombats are often out and about in daylight and I have returned there many times. Watching them there is pure delight. The Narawntapu National Park is a place every wombat-lover should visit.

Although much had been learned about wombats, there are still many aspects of their natural history that are not known or understood. This book is my attempt to record the information that has been published by many well-qualified researchers, as well as what I have managed to find out about them.

A great many people have helped me to write this book and its earlier version, and in the study of wombats over the last 30 years. It would be impossible to list all of them here, but I wish to thank them all. There are some to whom I am especially indebted for allowing me to draw on their work, both published and unpublished, and for critically reading the manuscript or parts of it for the earlier edition, especially John McIlroy, Graham Brown, Rod Wells, Bob Green, the late John Seebeck and Paul Presidente. In gathering material for this book I have had valuable input from Alan Horsup and Rod Wells and I thank them both for their help.

Many others have assisted me with ideas, criticism and encouragement, have provided access to wombats, information on development of young, data for the distribution maps, reference papers, identification of plant and scat material, and helped in many other ways. I also wish to thank all those who provided photographs, not only those who have been acknowledged in the relevant captions but also those whose photographs I was unable to use but which provided me with valuable reference material. Although there is not space to acknowledge all these people individually I am especially indebted to Martin Schulz, Clive Marks, Peter Canty, Hans Brunner, Wendy and Derek Falconer, Paul Kelly, Janet Lanyon, Heather Meek, Colin and Vi Merrett, Pauline Reilly, Helen and Jim Scott, Greg Young, Manfred Heide and Sheryn Woon. Tony Mitchell, Nick Mooney and other officers of the wildlife authorities of all states were also most helpful.

I also wish to thank the rangers and staff of the Narawntapu National Park and Dorothy Chalmers for her assistance in the field there. Amanda Cox of the Wombat Protection Society went out of her way to help me with information and photographs and I sincerely thank her. I am also very grateful to the illustrators – Peter Schouten, Jonathan Guy and Trish Wright – whose work enhances the book.

Finally I want to thank the wombats themselves, the wild ones who put up with my presence and the orphans who taught me so much, for the endless delight they have given, and continue to give me. May they always be there.




Australia – a lush subtropical forest

Wombats are ancient animals. Marsupials – the pouched mammals, of which the wombat is one – evolved about 100 million years ago, but the Australian fossil record is woefully sparse. The oldest known marsupial fossils are about 24 million years old, but very little is known about the early marsupials until the period that began about 15 million years ago. At that time, when much of Australia, including the now arid centre, was covered by lush subtropical forest, wombat-like marsupials were roaming the forest floor. Dolphins played in large freshwater lakes that spread over large areas of what is now central Australia. In the region we call the Simpson Desert, the trees were the homes of possums, gliders and koalas, while small rabbit-sized kangaroos hopped along the gullies, and large lion-sized carnivorous marsupials, Thylacaleo, hunted their prey.

These animals were the ancestors of the ones we know today, and although not enough fossils have yet been found to establish a complete family tree, we do know something about the links between these ancient forms and their modern relatives and about the course of events that influenced their evolution.

Figure 1.1 Sites at which some fossil wombats have been found. The scientific names of the fossil wombats are given in brackets.

Many of the mammals that were evolving between about 15 and five million years ago were developing larger and larger bodies, and as the world approached the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene some giant forms evolved, with more developing as time went on: several species of giant kangaroos, mighty marsupial lions, and the largest marsupial of all, the Diprotodon – a huge lumbering herbivore, up to two metres high at the shoulder and three metres long, about the size of a large rhinoceros.

By the mid-Pleistocene the wombats were giant too. The scientific names of some of these fossil wombats and the sites at which the fossils were found are shown in Figure 1.1. The largest, Phascolonus gigas (Greek phaskolos, a pouch; gigas, giant), weighed up to 100 kilograms. Fossil remains of this giant extinct wombat have been found in many parts of Australia (Figure 1.2). Stockily built, the Pouched Giant was more than twice the size of the largest wombat seen today, but its feet were not as well adapted for digging as those of the modern wombat, so it may not have dug the cavernous burrows that its massive bulk would have needed (Figure 1.3).

Figure 1.2 Sites at which Phascolonus gigas fossils have been found.

Figure 1.3 Phascolonus gigas was more than twice the size of a modern wombat. Illustration: © Peter Schouten

Phascolonus gigas and many of the other giant marsupials were probably still flourishing when people first came to Australia, at least 50 000 years ago. By this time too, the two kinds (genera) of wombats living today – those with bare, leathery noses, the Vombatus genus, and those with hairy noses, the Lasiorhinus genus (Greek lasio, hairy; rhinus, nose) – were widely established over the country. These genera first appeared about two million years before the arrival of humans.

The drying up of the land

Much of the world was shrouded in ice at various times during the Pleistocene, and during these Ice Ages temperatures everywhere fell, evaporation of the seas and lakes diminished, and so less rain fell. Other factors contributed to an increasing aridity, and by 30 000 years ago much of inland Australia had changed from lush rainforest to grassland and dry, open forest, followed later by the sandy deserts and salt lakes of the present day.

The animals reacted to the drying up of the land in three different ways: some became extinct, some developed adaptations to the increasing aridity and were able to survive, and some continued to live in the higher, wetter and cooler highlands of eastern Australia and New Guinea. The wombats did all three.

The giant wombats became extinct, along with most of the rest of the megafauna – the diprotodons and marsupial lions, the giant kangaroos and other outsize marsupials. One of the most intensely cold and dry phases of the Pleistocene occurred between 25 000 and 15 000 years ago, and it was during this time that most of the giant mammals disappeared from the scene. Hunting and firing of the land by the Aborigines may also have contributed to their extinction. A species of wombat closely related and similar in size to the modern bare-nosed wombat, Vombatus ursinus, also became extinct during the late Pleistocene. Fossil remains of this species, Vombatus hacketti, have been found in the Mammoth Cave and Devil’s Lair deposits in south-western Western Australia.

The hairy-nosed wombats adapted to the increasing dryness, and their modern descendants live successfully in such semi-arid areas as the Nullarbor Plain.

The bare-nosed wombats, on the other hand, sought refuge in the cooler forests of the south-east. The common wombat, which is now the only surviving member of the genus Vombatus, needs the more temperate climate and moister habitat found in these forests (Figure 1.4). It would be unable to survive if exposed to the harsh way of life of its hairy-nosed relatives. The name ‘common wombat’ is misleading; this species is no longer common and its range is declining rapidly. Therefore I have chosen to use another of its names – bare-nosed wombat – for

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