What creature roams the Australian Outback, extends its hospitality to others in times of need, and eludes predators with a unique rear end?
The tiny, mighty wombat! This little roly-poly ball of densely matted fur is a staple of Australia’s menagerie of weird and wonderful creatures.
The elusive wombat is usually only observed behind bars. Not because he was naughty and got sent to jail, but because he is an important animal in any Australian zoo, helping with conservation efforts for his family and just generally being adorable.
While our modern attachment to the wombat is evident in everything from stuffed souvenirs to cartoon characters, their presence in traditional stories and art is fairly limited. Perhaps it’s because they spend so much time underground. Or maybe the Aboriginals of Australia just couldn’t take such an adorable waddler seriously. Whatever the reason, wombats made news in 2003 when a rare depiction of one in a 4000 year old cave painting was discovered.
And, of course, they make an appearance in a few of the Dreamtime stories of indigenous Australians. To the D’Harawal, wombat originally had a long tail that he lost due to his rude and reckless attitude. To the Tasmanian people however, wombat was the trickster Drogerdy who, after one particularly mischievous night, was bestowed with the name Publedina, “the brave little digger with no tail”. Both are quite the tales, indeed!
The Tail-less Digger
Extending an impressive three feet long, wombats only stand about 20 inches high, or approximately the height of a toilet seat. With tiny little legs, these powerful creatures pack all kinds of cool features in their 65 lb. frames. The little cuties are considered both crepuscular and nocturnal, since they avoid the heat of the sun and are instead active from sunset to sunrise. During the day they hide in burrows that they’ve dug themselves; impressive underground networks of tubes where the wombats live in solitude.
Then there’s my favorite part: the butt-ear. If you’re wondering how a wombat might protect itself from predators, the butt-ear is how. Basically, their rear end is primarily made of cartilage, much like our ears, and this allows them to escape attack with little damage. It’s also difficult for the attacker to gain purchase on the wombat as the rugged rump is so hard to pierce.
Home on the Range
Wombats can be found in any ecosystem, from hinterland to mountain top, though their current range is limited. Once found in pockets all over the country, the wombat’s introduction to European settlers was extremely detrimental. First, they were mistaken for badgers and classified as pests, which began to reduce their numbers. Then in 1925, a bounty was set that caused a severe reduction in population size and range.
There are three species of wombat: the common wombat has the largest range while the northern and southern hairy nosed wombats are limited to isolated areas in the north and south, respectively. Today, there are conservation methods in effect showing promising results, but the humble wombat is still limited to a few coastal areas around southern and eastern Australia. Efforts are especially focused on the northern hairy nosed wombat to extend its range beyond Epping Forest National Park in Queensland, the only place it’s commonly found. Only 100 years ago the northern hairy nosed wombat could be found ranging the entire eastern Australian seaboard. And the common wombat, originally named for its abundance, is now very hard to find.
The lack of individuals also explains the lack of research. A lot of what we know about wombats today is very new information. So let’s explore some of that!
So first of all, wombats poop a lot! Each act of defecation only counts 4-8 pieces, but they manage to create a total of 80-100 pieces of feces per night! But the really cool part is that the pieces are cubes.
The wombat is the only known animal that creates a square deposit, and scientists have been baffled at the mechanisms that make that happen. It is only recently that scientists have discovered how wombats accomplish this feat. It turns out that the cubes are not shaped at the point of exit, but instead higher up in the tract, where the rhythm of contraction and expansion within the wombat’s intestines create straight edges in the waste. A 2021 study summarized in Science magazine details how wombats have regions of their intestinal tracts of varied stiffness and thickness.
“The stiffer portions are “like a stiff rubber band—[they’re] going to contract faster than the soft regions,” says David Hu, a biomechanics researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author on the study. Softer intestinal regions squeeze slowly and mold the final corners of the cube, the team found. In other mammals, the wavelike peristalsis of the intestinal muscles are consistent in all directions. But in the wombat, the grooved tissue and the irregular contractions over many cycles shape firm, flat-sided cubes.”
There is a lot of study happening right now about how to replicate this procedure in manufacturing. I guess humans have a couple ways we currently make cubes, and the mechanics of the wombat’s intestines are completely new to us. Once we understand it, look out for new cube factories near you!
In 2020 bushfires raged across Victoria, Australia, killing about 3 billion animals. Now living in the USA, about 10,000 miles away from my once-home, I cried at the videos on the news of animals fleeing, people trapped on beaches, and smoke hundreds of miles away so thick it obscured the Sydney Opera House from view, even if you were standing on the nearby wharf.
But then a story emerged, a story of triumph and compassion. Apparently, during the fires, wombats opened their burrows to other creatures. Smaller rodents, birds, and lizards were observed taking shelter underground, and even sheep and small horses joined in! Remember how I mentioned earlier that wombats like their solitude? Well, they may not be keen on sharing with other wombats, but small birds and lizards regularly take cover from the blazing sun in the homes they dig. And during the fires the number of animals welcomed in grew massively.
Even when the Earth is not a blazing hellscape, it might still feel extremely hostile due to the intensity of the Australian midday sun. In these conditions, water is hard to come by. As small pools of water – called billabongs – dry up, the wombat will dig down until it reaches water again, expanding the hole so that all can use it. A variety of animals have been observed quenching their thirst at a wombat’s hole.
The wombat may be slow, small, and too cute to take seriously, but they still do serious work. So if you’re ever stranded in the Australian desert, desperate for water, just look for the wombat and then remember to pay their generosity forward.
By Julia Eden
With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in Pacific Northwest native flora, decentralized water retention, and holistic land management, she is dedicated to living a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.