The Wombat: Common Wombats in Australia

Barbara Triggs

University of New South Wales Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
Anyone who has spent much time in the bush in south-eastern Australia will have encountered the signs of the common wombat Vombatus ursinus: the entrances to their burrows are obvious and their cubical scats are the most distinctive of any Australian mammal. Being nocturnal, however, wombats are rarely seen — most commonly crossing roads at night, or as road-kill — and have not been as well studied as Australia's other iconic mammals. In The Wombat Barbara Triggs gives an entertaining and informative presentation of what is known about them.

She begins with an overview of wombat evolution and taxonomy and distribution. There are two rarer species of hairy-nosed wombats, found in Queensland and South Australia, as well as the common wombat covered here, which is found in south-eastern Australia and Tasmania. Other related species are now extinct; the closest living relative of the wombat is the koala.

Wombat burrows are most commonly dug into slopes, beneath rocks; they are where wombats spend most of the day, sleeping. As well as providing protection, burrows maintain a temperature between 4 and 25 degrees celsius even in winter and summer extremes.

"Crushed skulls of foxes and dogs have been found in burrows, evidence of the wombat's well-known method of disposing of intruders, and I have seen a fox chased out of a burrow by an angry adult wombat."

Emerging around dusk, wombats spend most of the night above ground (sometimes resting in burrows) before returning to a burrow before sunrise. Triggs looks at grooming, travelling, sometimes aggressive encounters with other wombats, olfactory signals, eating and drinking, and more.

There are some fascinating and sometimes surprising details in here. One question prompted by scats found high on ridges is how wombats can survive so far from water.

"Grassy creek and river banks are popular feeding areas at all times, but a wombat rarely drinks from the stream or any other free water, except when all the grass has yellowed and lost most of its moisture. ... Adult wombats rarely urinate."
Wombats are, however, efficient swimmers over short distances.

After birth, wombats spend seven months or so in the pouch; another five to eight months may follow before weaning. Adults can reach 40 kilograms and may live to around 15 years. Wombat courtship and mating have only recently been observed, using infra-red equipment:

"the male [chased] the female while she trotted around in wide circles and figures of eight; periodically she would slow down, allowing the male to catch up with her. After about two minutes the male delivered a powerful bite to the female's rump. At once, the female stopped running; the male then grasped her hindquarters with his forelimbs, rolled her over on her side and mounted her."

Injuries, ticks and other parasites, floods (which can drown wombats in their burrows), droughts, and fires are all threats to wombats.

"Some wombats do survive even the hottest fire, only to emerge to find a completely changed world. All the familiar features of the wombat's limited landscape have gone; all familiar scents and signs have been eliminated. Worse still, so has most of the food... Wombats living nearer to the perimeter of a bushfire have a better chance of survival, but if they move into 'new' country they are not welcomed by any wombats residing there, and the resulting fights can be savage and harmful."

But humans are now the biggest threat to wombats. Their damage to anti-rabbit fencing and supposed destruction of pasture resulted in wombats being gazetted as vermin; though now protected they are still targeted by some farmers. Less deliberate deaths come from land clearing and road traffic.

A final chapter looks at the raising of orphaned wombats, something which can be rewarding but which is demanding and fraught with complications: wombats have not been domesticated and don't make good pets.

Triggs has a lively style, but never lapses into dramatisation or personal storytelling. She also includes eight pages of colour photographs and many halftones. The Wombat is recommended to anyone at all curious about the species.

March 2005

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%T The Wombat
%S Common Wombats in Australia
%A Triggs, Barbara
%I University of New South Wales Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, 2nd edition, photographs, index
%G ISBN 086840263X
%P 148pp