Here are 10 things you need to know about these adorable marsupials. But first, to poo.
Wombat poo has its own flies
It’s no surprise to find flies and poo together, but wombat poo has its own specialised flies. The 25 species of wombat flies have been a bit of a mystery, until now. At our Australian National Insect Collection, we’re studying their diversity and evolution to understand where they came from and how long they’ve been keen on this very particular fare.
Their poo is square
Actually, wombat poo is cube-shaped, but without the sharp corners. Like the poo of many other Australian marsupials, it’s dry and hard. In fact, this is why our native dung beetles couldn’t deal with cow poo, which is much wetter. In the 1970s, we began introducing dung beetles from the Mediterranean and North Africa to clean up cow poo.
One last poo fact: wombats mark their territory, especially outside their burrows. You can find their little poo cubes piled on logs and rocks.
They live in burrows
Wombats tunnel underground, digging holes big enough for a person to fall into. They are big animals, around one metre in length. And while they are mainly active in darkness, you might spot a wombat out and about during the day.
There are three different species
Wombats belong to the family Vombatidae. Vombatus ursinus (Bare-Nosed Wombat) lives in southeastern Australia and has several subspecies. Its species name is derived from the Latin word for bear, ursus. And, as its common name suggests, it has a smooth nose.
Lasiorhinus latifrons (Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat) lives mainly in the southern part of South Australia. Lasiorhinus krefftii (Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat) is critically endangered and lives only in a protected area in Queensland.
Wombats are marsupials. Like kangaroos, their babies are born very early and continue their development in a pouch. In wombats, the pouch faces backwards. This is likely an adaptation to prevent the pouch filling with soil when digging. Bare-Nosed Wombat mothers have one baby at a time, which gestates for about a month before spending about eight months in the pouch. And another eight months or so hanging around with mum. Adults are mostly solitary but may sometimes share a burrow.
They can get mange
Wombats can suffer a skin disease caused by mange mite, a pest species. Mites are tiny arthropods with eight legs that are related to ticks and spiders. If you notice a sick wombat, please contact your local wildlife rescue organisation.
We’ve collected their worms
Australia’s biodiversity hosts its own biodiversity. Wombats have three trematodes (flukes) that evolved with them and which are parasites of the small intestine. But wombats can also be infected with sheep liver fluke, which is harmful to them. The photo below shows a vial of ethanol containing a sheep liver fluke from a wombat’s gall bladder. We keep specimens like this at the Australian National Wildlife Collection to help understand animal health.
They used to have giant cousins
Wombats and koalas are the closest living relatives of the extinct family Diprotodontidae. The most well-known member of the family is Diprotodon optatum, the largest marsupial ever. Imagine herds of huge wombat-like creatures, nearly two metres tall, grazing on vegetation, occupying a similar niche to mammoths in Europe. Not so long ago, the world was filled with giant mammals, including a rat weighing six kilograms.
They glow in the dark
Well, not quite. But scientists working in museums recently noticed many marsupials fluoresce under UV light, like parrots do. This suggests they can see in the UV spectrum, meaning patterns on fur, feathers and flowers are visible to them but not to us. We are imaging the parrot and other bird specimens in the Australian National Wildlife Collection by taking photos under white and UV lights. We’ll make the results available for research.