It’s the final day of Furry Mammal Herbivore week which has so far featured two different lagomorphs, one rodent, and the enigmatic hyrax. To mix things up a bit we are ending with a marsupial–the stolid wombat. The wombat’s unusual moniker comes from the Eora language which was spoken by the Aboriginal people who originally inhabited the Sidney area. There are three species of wombats and all are powerful burrowing herbivores which are active mostly at twilight and at night. Wombats are marsupials but the openings of their pouches face backwards to prevent dirt from getting inside as they dig. Although wombats are not often seen, their presence can be identified by the many burrows which they excavate and by their distinctive cubic scat which looks like bouillon cubes (you’ll have to look it up on your own).
Wombats are larger than this week’s other herbivores, reaching nearly a meter (3 feet) in length. Although they are preyed on by dingos and Tasmanian Devils, their large muscles and heavy claws give them some protection (as does their tailless haunch which is composed largely of dense cartilage). A predator following a wombat into a burrow is confronted not only with the shield-like flesh of their rear-quarters but also with fearsome donkey kicks from their powerful back legs. Wombats are never far from their burrows since they construct up to 12 at various spots around their territory. Even if they are related to the dimwitted koalas, wombats are said to have a more complicated brain than other marsupials (although their intelligence in no way approaches that of the brilliant monotreme echidna) and they often surprise trappers and zoologists with their clever evasive thinking. Additionally, when hard pressed, they can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds—impressive when one learns the human world record is 9.58 seconds.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and weirdo, used the wombat to parody the Victorian taste for overly lugubrious gothic melodrama in his sad drawing “The death of a Wombat” (above). The drawing shows a sobbing plump Victorian gentleman weeping for his deceased wombat friend while declaiming the following lament:
I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!
The work might be a parody but I find the poor dead wombat curiously affecting. Fortunately all wombats are now protected by Australian law. However human settlement has caused the two species of hairy nosed wombats to move up into the mountains where their burrowing is less effective and provides poorer defense against predators. Additionally all wombats have been having trouble competing for grazing with cattle, sheep, and above all rabbits. Hopefully wombats will continue to endure–the endearing little bulldozers are an irreplaceable component of Australia and Tasmania.