Wombats are one of Australia's cutest and most interesting animals. They are the largest burrowing mammals in the world and the second largest of all marsupials. As they're endemic to Australia and numbers are declining, they can be a rare treat to spot. Still, there's a lot more to the wombat than you might first realize.
This article will explore some of the most interesting facts about wombats you may not know. From their cube-shaped poop to their altruistic behaviors, you'll be sure to learn something new!
They Are Only the Size of A Jellybean When They're Born
There is a reason marsupials have pouches - their babies are born while they're still developing, meaning they require a safe space to continue their growth. Take the wombat - the female gives birth, after only a three-week pregnancy, to a tiny, jellybean-sized joey who crawls from the birth canal to the safety of its mother's pouch.
Their Poop Is Cube-Shaped
Did you know that a wombat's poop is cube-shaped? That's right; it is a unique trait no other mammal has! Not only that, but wombats also use this cube-shaped poop to mark their territory and stop it from rolling away.
Following research into this phenomenon, scientists think they've finally discovered the cause of this unusually shaped feces. Firstly, wombats take much longer to digest their food than we do - while the average human digestive process takes one to two days, a wombat can take four times as long. This helps them squeeze all available nutrition from the food, making the waste material much drier.
In addition, the poop is shaped in the last 8% of the intestines, where varied elasticity and muscle contractions allow it to form a distinct cube shape.
There Are Three Distinct Species of Wombat
There are three distinct species of wombat: -The common wombat, the southern hairy-nosed wombat, and the northern hairy-nosed wombat, all of which live in Australia.
The common wombat - also known as the bare-nosed wombat - has a hairless nose and downward-facing nostrils, making it more similar in appearance to the koala; they also have rounder heads, shorter ears, and longer bodies than their hairy-nosed counterparts.
The most distinguishing feature of the hairy-nosed wombat is its flattened, pig-like snout, complete with fine hair and whiskers. The Northern hairy-nosed wombat is the most critically endangered marsupial in the world, found only within a 750-acre area of the Queensland Forest.
Their Butts Are an Important Source of Defense
Wombats have a unique defense mechanism that helps them protect themselves from predators - their bums. Wombat bums are mainly made of cartilage, making them incredibly tough and difficult to penetrate. This is their primary form of defense against predators like dingoes and foxes.
When threatened, the wombat will retreat to its burrow and plug the entrance with its butt. Thanks to the resilient nature of the cartilage, the wombat can withstand a moderate attack of bites and scratches. But, if the predator becomes too persistent, the wombat will push its butt hard against the roof of its burrow and crush the attacker's skull - now that's some serious buns of steel!
Their Closest Living Relative Is the Koala
The closest relative to the wombat is the koala. Both these animals belong to the marsupial family and share many similarities, including having backward-facing pouches. These pouches benefit both animals by preventing dirt and debris from entering the pouch and harming its young. It also helps keep the wombat's babies safe from predators while developing in its pouch.
Still, while the wombat lives in burrows and feeds on grasses, herbs, roots, and bark, the koala feeds on eucalyptus leaves and spends most of its time living high up in trees. Scientists believe the first arboreal koalas probably evolved from ground-dwelling wombats who wanted to use an untouched food source.
They Help Other Animals
During times of crisis, wombat burrows become home to many other animals, providing them with vital shelter. They dig tunnels up to 30 m long, which can provide refuge for smaller animals during floods or wildfires. Don't get us wrong; we're not saying that wombats are the "Noah" of the animal world - they don't stand at their burrow entrance inviting hoards or animals to come in and make themselves comfortable. But they will tolerate the presence of other animals in their homes, which provides crucial shelter during times of crisis.
And these remarkable little creatures are essential for their local environments too. Like many digging mammals, the wombats burrowing behaviors help to break up hard soil and recycle organic materials - such as fallen leaves - through the ground. In doing this, they also aid in seed germination, which helps plants to thrive. So, wombats aren't just cute; they're also an essential part of their ecosystems.
Wombats Teeth Never Stop Growing
A wombat's teeth are more like rodents than marsupials, thanks to one key feature - they never stop growing. Wombats lack canines but have tough incisors on the top and bottom jaw alongside their molars, and thanks to their rootless nature, the teeth continue to grow throughout the wombat's life.
Still, you don't see wombats walking around with three feet long teeth, do you? That's because as the tooth grows, the wombat erodes the older parts with a fibrous diet that often contains silica (an object that can be particularly abrasive to teeth). And this allows the wombat to maintain perfectly sized, healthy teeth.
Ancient Wombats Weighed Up to Three Tons
During the ice age, Australia was home to some of the largest marsupials ever known - the diprotodon. These giant wombats could weigh up to three tons and roamed Australia in large numbers. Despite their size, they were peaceful herbivores who spent their days chewing leaves, grasses, and saltbushes.
Adults were large enough to avoid attacks, but some predatory animals would attack young diprotodon, like Thylacoleo (or marsupial lions). Sadly, as temperatures began to rise and droughts increased, their numbers started declining, and they eventually became extinct.