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Well that went fast—in no time we have counted down to the second most popular Ferrebeekeeper post ever. The subject happens to both completely adorable yet also strangely unfamiliar—it is the magnificent bulldozer of the marsupial world, the lovable wombat (Family Vombatidae)!

An adult  wombat in the wild

An adult wombat in the wild

The wombat was the highlight of “furry herbivore mammal week,” a festival of five magnificent fuzzy grazers from around the world (the other equally endearing mammals were the pica, the hyrax, the groundhog, and the rabbit). The post was enlivened by magnificent photos of wombats from unknown sources (sorry, anonymous wombat photographers—I wanted to credit you properly!) and by an illustrated poem from Victorian artist/aesthete/oddball Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

"I like drawing wombats and skinny porcelain-colored women who look like they are from the middle ages!"

“I like drawing wombats and skinny porcelain-colored women who look like they are from the middle ages!”

I have not found out any additional information about wombats or the wombatiforms (for there were numerous giant extinct species of wombat, which are now sadly extinct), however I have found new footage! As a special treat, here is a photo of a fortunate hipster cuddling with a friendly baby wombat. You should watch to the end when the delighted wombat scrunches up against the bearded Austrian and then rolls on his back in delight. It is really worth seeing and will restore your sense of joy and wonder!

 

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It’s time to revisit our dear friends, the wombats.  Although this blog featured a post about the living wombats in general and a post about the extinct giant wombats which once roamed Australia, we have not concentrated individually on the extant species.  Today we will remedy that oversight by writing about the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) which is one of the world’s rarest large mammals.  The hairy-nosed wombat is the largest of the world’s three wombat species weighing up to 32 kgs (about 70 pounds).  The animal also has longer ears and softer (grayer) fur than other wombats but its behavior and general lifestyle is very similar to its relatives.

Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat  (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

Although the hairy-nosed wombat is one of the most efficient of all mammals in turns of water consumption, the continuing desertification of Australia hit its territory hard and caused the species to decline.  The animal was already rare when English settlers came to the island continent and the population dropped even further when forced to compete with European predators and farm animals and contend with habitat loss to farming and development.  Perhaps most seriously (and insidiously) the grasses which the wombats prefer to graze are being replaced by invasive species.  By the 1970s, the entire species probably only numbered around 20 or 30 individuals.

Range of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (exaggerated to be visible)

Range of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (exaggerated to be visible)

Today the hairy-nosed wombat numbers between 100 and 150 in the wild.  The creatures were long confined to a habitat about the size of Central Park (approximately 3 square kilometers) although a second wombat preserve has recently been created for them. Australians are kind people who have been trying hard to save the fetching whisker-nosed marsupial, but the fate of the species is still unclear.

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Diprotodon

The largest marsupial known to science is the now extinct diprotodon. Also known as the giant wombat or the rhinoceros wombat, this mighty marsupial grazer stood  nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall and stretched 3 metres (9.8 feet) from nose to tail.  The animals flourished throughout much of the Pleistocene. From 1.6 million years ago until about 40,000 years ago, herds of Diprotodonts roamed across all of Australia.  These giant wombats were indeed closely related to today’s wombats and koalas: jointly such creatures make up the Vombatiforme suborder   Considering how formidable the bulldozer-like living wombat is, diprotodons must have indeed been like rhinoceroses and they probably occupied a similar top spot in the Australian web of life.

Unfortunately, like a substantial portion of Australia’s mega-fauna, the giant wombats disappeared shortly after humankind reached the island continent. The creatures apparently were destroyed by some combination of climate change, human hunting, and slash-and-burn land management. Aboriginal dreamtime lore makes extensive mention of a mighty furred beast called the bunyip–which has led anthropologists and paleontologists to speculate that the diprotodon has lived on in oral tradition for tens of thousands of years.

Fossil Remains of Diprotodon australis

Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)

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).

Wombat physiognomy betwrays their close relation to koalas.

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.

Death of a Wombat (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869, pen and ink)

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 plump 19th century 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.  Despite such protection, the creatures are still 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.

Aww!

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