Common Wombat

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​The common wombat is the largest burrowing herbivorous mammal. Indeed, it is such an accomplished burrower that early settlers called it a 'badger', a term that is still heard today. However, the closest relative of the wombat is, in fact, the koala. With its short tail and legs, characteristic waddle and 'cuddly' appearance, the wombat is one of the most endearing of Australia's native animals.

Distribution

The common wombat occurs in Tasmania, southern Queensland, eastern New South Wales and eastern Victoria with remnant populations in south-eastern South Australia and south-western Victoria. There are two other species of wombat, both found on mainland Australia - the southern hairy-nosed wombat and the threatened northern hairy-nosed wombat.
There are three subspecies of common wombat -- Vombatus ursinus hirsutus which is found on the Australian mainland, Vombatus ursinus tasmaniensis which is found in Tasmania and Vombatus ursinus ursinus which was once found throughout the Bass Strait islands but is now restricted to Flinders Island, and was introduced to Maria Island.

Wombats can be seen in a number of Tasmania’s national parks, including Mt William and Cradle Mountain National Park. More information about these national parks can be found on the Parks and Wildlife web site at www.parks.tas.gov.au.

Description

It is a fairly large, solidly built animal with a squat, round, bearlike body, small ears and eyes, and a large naked nose. Its thick, coarse fur varies in colour from sandy brown to grey and black, and is sometimes flecked with fawn.

Often their true colour is obscured by the colour of the dirt or clay in which they have been digging. On the mainland they average 1 m in length and 27 kg in weight yet can reach up to 1.2 m in length and weights of up to 35 kg. The Tasmanian Wombat is not as large or bulky, averaging 85 cm in length and 20 kg in weight, while the Flinders Island wombat is smaller still at only 75 cm in length.


Wombat PrintsThey have short legs, large paws and long, strong claws which are used in the excavation of burrows. The forepaws are used for digging: after pushing the dirt to one side, the wombat will back out, moving the loose dirt with both the front and back paws. It differs from all other marsupials by having a single pair of upper and lower incisors (front teeth). These teeth are never ground away as they are both rootless and never stop growing, which is just as well as the wombat often uses them for cutting through obstructions, much like a beaver! Being marsupials, female wombats have a pouch that in their case opens backward to prevent dirt and debris entering while burrowing.

Habitat

In Tasmania the wombat is widespread and found from sea level to alpine areas but shows a preference for heathland, coastal scrub and open forest where soils favour their burrowing habits. In Queensland and northern New South Wales it occurs only in sclerophyll forest above 600 metres. Wombats often dig their burrows in the areas above creeks and gullies. Burrows can be up to 20 m long and more than 2 m below the ground, and have numerous connecting tunnels and entrances. There may also be more than one nest in the burrow, which they make from sticks, leaves and grasses.

Lifestyle

Wombats are mostly nocturnal, usually coming out at night to graze when temperatures are lower. However, in cold periods they may sometimes be seen about during the day either grazing or basking in the sun. They graze for between three and eight hours a night, during which time they may travel many kilometres and visit up to four burrows within their home range to rest or tidy up the burrow. Although they are solitary animals, with only one wombat inhabiting any one burrow, the overlap of home ranges does occasionally result in a number of wombats using the same burrow.

To avoid the overlap of feeding areas they use scent-marking, vocalisations and aggressive displays. Wombats not only leave their burrow to graze but will also spend time rubbing themselves against logs or branches. If used often enough, these rubbing posts may be recognised by their worn or polished appearance.

The distinctive cube shaped dung of the wombat is a useful indication of its comings and goings. Any new object within a home range is a prime target for marking with dung, particularly if it is elevated. Fallen trees, fresh mushrooms, rocks and even an upright stick have been found with dung on top! The cube shape means that dung is less likely to roll off such objects.

The rump of the wombat is covered by a very tough, thick skin. If threatened, a wombat will dive into a nearby burrow or hollow log, using its rump as protection from the teeth and claws of its attacker. The wombat is also capable of crushing attackers against the burrow roof. Their natural enemies are Tasmanian devils and eagles, while no doubt the thylacine once preyed upon them.

Breeding

Although the wombat may breed at any time of the year, mating most often occurs during winter. The female has two teats in her pouch yet despite this, 30 days after mating, only one young is born. The juvenile remains in the pouch for six months, after which it stays with the female until it is 18 months old. From the time the juvenile leaves the pouch, it reduces its milk consumption and increases the amounts of plant material eaten. At about 15 months old, it stops suckling altogether. Sexual maturity is reached at two years of age and wombats live for in excess of five years in the wild. Due to the long period of time that the young is dependent on the mother, it is likely that females only rear one young every two years. However, if the young dies early, or if conditions are good enough for it to leave the pouch early, she may raise another.

Diet

The diet of the wombat is composed entirely of plant material. Its main food is native grasses but shrubs, roots, sedges, bark and herbs are also eaten, while moss seems to be a particular delicacy. At times of food shortages they may dig up sections of dead grass to get at the roots. When feeding, the front feet of wombats are surprisingly dextrous -- they can pick up vegetation with one foot and 'hand' it to the mouth!

Sarcoptic Mange

Sarcoptic mange is caused by the parasitic mite Sarcoptes scabiei. The parasite is of human origin and is thought to have been introduced to Australia by Europeans and their animals. It can affect various mammalian species but has its greatest impact on the common wombat.

Wombat populations throughout south-eastern Australia are affected by sarcoptic mange. It generally occurs at low prevalence, but more extreme outbreaks can occur sporadically within populations. Outbreaks are anecdotally associated with times of nutritional stress and/or overcrowding. Susceptibility of individual wombats varies, and transmission between animals may be exacerbated by burrow sharing. Survival of mites is affected by environmental conditions, with laboratory studies showing cool, humid conditions lead to longest survival of mites away from their hosts.

Between 2010 and 2016, the common wombat population in Narawntapu National Park and nearby areas on Tasmania’s north coast has been significantly affected by sarcoptic mange resulting in a loss of wombats. Although mange has been reported from other parts of Tasmania, statewide monitoring of wombats by DPIPWE show that counts have increased between 1985 and 2015 and have remained stable between 2009 and 2015 (see section on population trends below).

DPIPWE is working the University of Tasmania and the local community to better understand the causes that lead mange outbreaks and to develop better treatment of mange-infected wombats in the wild.

Specific actions that have been undertaken by DPIPWE relating to wombat status include:
  • Analysis of state-wide and regional wombat population trends using the past 30 years of spotlight survey data;
  • Several research projects conducted by UTAS under permits provided by DPIPWE;
  • The Orphaned and Injured Wildlife Program continues to assist the public by providing advice on managing treatment of affected wombats;
  • Working with the community to ensure that treatments are properly dispensed and documented to assess effectiveness;
  • Allocation of funds for distribution to community groups and individuals involved in the treatment of mange-infected wombats;
  • Allocation of funds for the University of Tasmania and volunteers from Conservation Volunteers Australia; and
  • Mange Treatment Protocols have been developed:
      Mange Treatment Protocols   (409Kb)

Community Support for Treating Wombats

To secure the recovery of Tasmania’s wombat population from the impacts of mange, the Tasmanian Government has committed $100,000 to a joint effort program between the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, the University of Tasmania and volunteers from Conservation Volunteers Australia. To ensure the best possible prospects of success in responding to the disease the commitment by the Tasmanian Government includes assistance to community groups, and individuals, to help mange-affected wombats.  

If you are a community group or individual actively involved in first response efforts in caring for affected wombats, and have demonstrated experience in treating mange-infected wombats, you may be eligible to apply for the reimbursement of consumable costs incurred in such treatment (up to a total of $3,000). 

Please complete the form above, providing all requested information, and return it to vanessa.gill@dpipwe.tas.gov.au.

Reimbursements will be considered for eligible recipients for costs incurred from 13 March 2017.

To be considered eligible for any reimbursement of costs, applicants will first need to have obtained the appropriate permits, including a Mange Management Incorporated APVMA sub-permit and any Nature Conservation Act permit/s to take and or possess wombats.  Applicants are also advised that they are required to retain their receipts for a period of two years.

Wombat Population Trends in Tasmania

Wombat numbers are monitored as part of DPIPWE’s Tasmanian Spotlight Survey program. Monitoring of the wombat population has been undertaken since 1985 throughout northern, central and eastern Tasmania. 

Monitoring has shown that from 1985 to 2015 there was a significant increase in overall wombat counts. However, spotlight data for the period 2009 to 2015 recorded a decrease in wombat counts in the west Tamar area. Despite this, over the same period the overall wombat population trend remained stable.

Find the report on wombat population trends below in the addtitional resources.
 

Additional Resources

Van Dyck, S and Strahan, R. (ed). (2008). The Mammals of Australia 3rd edition. Reed Books, NSW

Triggs, B. (2009). Wombats 2nd Edition. CSIRO Publishing

Contact

Wildlife Management Branch
134 Macquarie Street
GPO Box 44
HOBART TAS 7001
Phone: 03 6165 4305
Fax: 03 6173 0253
Email: wildlife.reception@dpipwe.tas.gov.au

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