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Wombats (Vombatus and Lasiorhinus spp.) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

  • Generally nocturnal - little activity during day
    • Typically emerge from burrow at sunset to graze for several hours (Wells 1989)
    • Summer - more active from midnight to early morning
    • Winter - more active from late afternoon to early evening
  • Most of time in underground burrows (see Burrowing, below)
    • Common wombats - 2/3 time in burrow on average (Triggs 1996)
    • Northern hairy-nosed wombats - 2-6 h above ground per day (Johnson 1991)
    • Southern hairy-nosed wombats - 6+ h above ground per day (McIlroy 2008)
    • Sleep in burrow up to 16 h to conserve energy
    • May bask in sun at/near burrow entrance during cooler months

Home Range

  • Individual home range - small for an herbivore - variable across species and between individuals
    • Includes burrows, feeding places, rubbing posts, dust-bathing patches, etc.
    • Connected by network of paths
  • Common wombat (Jackson 2003; McIlroy 2008; Triggs 1996)
    • Home range 2-82 ha (5-203 acres)
      • Size depends on distribution of burrows relative to feeding areas
      • Smaller core area used more intensively
  • Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Johnson 1991)
    • Home range around 25 ha (62 acres)
      • Estimated in study of 14 radio-collared wombats in the Epping Forest colony
      • Core areas (70% of activity) averaged 5.8 ha (14 acres)
  • Southern hairy-nosed wombat
    • Home range about 1.3-7.8 ha (3-19 acres) (Finlayson et al. 2005; Walker 2006)
      • Extremely small compared to other herbivores in same environment
        • Western grey kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus) has home range of 380 ha (939 acres) (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005)
      • Different individuals have overlapping ranges

Burrowing

  • Wombats are the only large, burrowing, herbivorous mammal (Johnson 1998; Steele & Temple-Smith 1998; Triggs 1996)
    • A semi-fossorial (burrowing) lifestyle is a key characteristic of wombats (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002)
      • One of largest of all burrowing mammals, and the only large burrowing herbivore
      • Most large herbivores cope with low-energy diet by spending much of their time feeding over large ranges
        • Typically spend much of their time feeding over large ranges
      • Most large burrowing animals (e.g. aardvark, giant pangolin) live on energy-rich insect diets
      • Wombats unique - live on low-quality grazing diet but have small ranges and spend much of their time in burrows
        • Energy-conserving physiological and behavioral adaptations make this possible
    • Benefits of burrowing (Woolnough & Steele 2001)
      • Behavioral regulation of internal temperature
        • External environment harsh - up to 35-40°C (95-104°F) in summer, to 0°C (32°F) or below at high elevations in winter
        • Wombats unable to internally regulate body temperature adequately in outside temperatures >25°C (77°F) (Jackson 2003)
        • Burrows have fewer temperature extremes than outside
      • Burrows used for behavioral regulation of water balance
        • Need to conserve water in arid environment
        • Burrows have higher humidity than outside
    • Costs of burrowing (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002; Woolnough & Steele 2001)
      • Large investment of time and energy to construct burrows - increases with size of animal
        • In study of captive southern hairy-nosed wombats under controlled digging conditions, wombats excavating 10-15 cm (4-6 in) tunnel in 50 min consumed about 12,000 times as much energy as walking that distance (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002)
          • Based on this study, excavating a 10-m (33-ft) tunnel would take 80 hrs and consume more energy than walking 120 km (75 mi)
      • Limited space - reduced range size, reduced ability of individuals to disperse
      • Limited air circulation - low oxygen, high CO2
      • Limited movement
      • Sensory deprivation
  • Unique digging style (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002; Triggs 1996)
    • Digs several strokes with one forefoot then switches sides
    • Backs up pushing loosened soil behind - deposits outside entrance, creating ramp
    • Lies on side scratching at roof/walls to enlarge
    • Bites off vegetation/roots in path (eats if edible)
    • Very fast diggers
      • A common wombat in the wild was observed to dig 1 m (3.3 ft) in 1 night, 6 m (20 ft) in 1 week (Triggs 1996)
      • In a controlled research study, captive southern hairy-nosed wombats excavated average of 20-30 kg (44-66 lb) dirt in 50 min, with one excavating 42 kg (93 lb) (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002)
  • Burrow design and use (Jackson 2003; Matthews & Green 2012; Shimmin et al. 2001-2002; Steele & Temple-Smith 1998)
    • Burrow design differs between wombat species
      • Features in common
        • Generally elliptical in cross-section (width > height)
        • Maximum depth about 200 cm (79 in)
        • Variable length - 1.5-60 m (5-200 ft)
        • One or more chambers (sleeping; waiting areas)
    • Common wombat - loose arrangement of burrows
      • Individuals use about 10 single-entrance burrows
        • About 3 burrows get most use
      • Large nesting/sleeping chambers
        • Lined with twigs, leaves, bark, grasses, ferns
        • May assist temperature regulation in cool habitat
    • Northern hairy-nosed wombats - loose cluster of small warrens
      • Warrens: systems of branching, interconnecting burrows
      • Major warrens have 1-7 entrances connected by surface trails
      • Up to 10 warrens loosely clustered in a few hectares, surrounded by small single-entrance burrows
      • Burrows excavated horizontally into shoulder of sandy gully
        • Stabilized by tree roots
        • Above waterline in wet season
    • Southern hairy-nosed wombat - large, complex warrens shared by many individuals
      • Warrens often old, used by many generations
        • Maintained and extended - complexity increases with age
        • May include several burrows; burrows may branch with several entrances
      • Warrens show large range of complexity, size
        • 1-100 entrances per warren
        • Largest in 1 study had about 30 entrances, 100 m (330 ft) of tunneling (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002)
      • 10-20 warrens per colony
      • Small chambers occur frequently along tunnel - may be resting points or places to leave young
      • Individuals use multiple burrows and up to 10 warrens
        • Allows wombats to cover different parts of their home range over a number of nights
        • 1 study tracked 1 individual to 14 burrows (Matthews & Green 2012)
      • Individuals rarely share burrows, but several may share a warren

Social Behavior

  • Generally solitary outside of breeding season (Jackson 2003)
    • Common wombats (Triggs 1996)
      • Typically found alone, although use shared trails, rubbing posts, feeding places, burrows
      Southern hairy-nosed wombats
      • Somewhat more gregarious - may share a warren but rarely a burrow (Taggart 2008)
      • Closely related males show preferential burrow- and warren-sharing (Walker 2008)
  • Minimal social contacts with other wombats (Triggs 1996)
    • Common wombats can communicate with and recognize a colony member
    • 2-3 individuals may feed within 30-40 m (10-13 ft) but generally don't approach closer than about 3 m (10 ft)
    • Several may seek refuge from predators or severe weather together in nearest burrow

Communication

  • Vocalization (Jackson 2003; Triggs 1996)
    • Stress
      • May scream loudly and gnash teeth
    • Separation of mother and young
      • Young - repeated soft "huh huh" when mother out of sight
      • Mother - "huh huh" in reply
    • Invasion of personal territory warning
      • At close approach of another individual
      • Begins with low guttural growl
      • Followed by repeated high, loud, rasping hiss - may rise to level of screech
    • More aggressive warning - possible prelude to fight
      • May be initiated when 1 wombat meets another, or hears/smells another far away
      • Initiated by 1 individual with series of vocalizations - flat "chicker chicker" and rasping "chur"
      • Answered by the other, followed by series of calls and answers
      • May continue for some time, ending either in non-confrontational passage or chase initiated by either individual
    • During fight
      • May produce throaty snorts and nasal squeals (common wombat)
  • Posturing (Triggs 1996)
    • Hostile gestures may occur before fight
      • Individual stands, or sits with front feet wide apart and body humped to appear larger
      • Head swings side-to-side while teeth mimic biting and body shivers
  • Olfactory cues (Steele & Temple-Smith 1998; Triggs 1996)
    • Scent marking
      • Cloacal scent glands secrete brownish liquid containing pheromones (hormones used for communication)
      • May deliberately leave scent trail by depositing a few drops on ground or objects
        • In path as individual enters burrow or moves around range
        • On top of scats
    • Fecal deposits
      • Large volumes - common wombats average 80-100 scats per night
      • Scattered across territory
        • Often on trails or entrances to occupied burrows
        • Often on new or altered objects in territory
    • Scratch marks
      • Southern hairy-nosed wombats leave scratch sites on tracks
      • Typically 10-20 cm (4-8 in) in fresh earth

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

  • Highly aggressive behavior is normal (Jackson 2003)
    • After emerging from pouch (about 9 mo old) - become aggressive
    • Post-weaning (about 18 mo old) - become very aggressive
    • Female approaching estrus - increasingly aggressive towards young
      • Severe biting and chasing (Böer 1998)
    • May dispute use of a burrow
    • May defend favorite feeding area (Triggs 1996)
    • During capture, may bite, scratch, or attack
  • Confrontations may involve warning vocalizations, hostile posturing (Triggs 1996)
    • May end in chase sequence
      • Pursuer and pursued may change roles
  • Fighting is rare
    • May involve bites to face, ears, rump, flanks (Wells 1989)
    • Head-on conflicts occur in burrows or entrances when individual in burrow resists entry of another (Triggs 1996)

Territorial Behavior

Territorial Behavior

  • Territorial with respect to feeding areas (Jackson 2003)
  • Individuals may dispute use of a burrow (Triggs 1996)

Other Behaviors

Play

  • Young wombats - after leaving pouch, common wombats show bursts of vigorous play (Triggs 1996)
    • Play initiation: stand completely still on stiff front legs, then jerk head/shoulders up (may lift front feet off ground)
    • Common play behaviors
      • Toss head from side to side
      • Jump in air with all four feet off ground
      • Roll over on side
      • Gallop off then comes to sudden stop, reverse direction, race back to mother, veer off just before collision
      • Lie on stomach, throw head back and swing it side-to-side with lips drawn back in "grin"
      • Run up slope and roll down on side
  • Captive wombats - play behaviors observed in southern hairy-nosed wombats in zoo (Moeller 1990)
    • Biting, tossing, chasing plastic pail
    • Standing on hind legs whipping towel side-to-side with head tosses
    • Leaping into air with all legs off ground, chasing tail in circles, rolling on ground

Locomotion

  • Plantigrade - walk on whole sole of foot
    • Common in animals that walk more than run (humans, bears, etc.)
    • Video - northern hairy-nosed wombat walking (front and rear views) (DEHP 2012)
  • Generally walk but can move rapidly
    • Slowly over short distances, rapidly across longer distances; can gallop to escape aggression/danger (Triggs 1996)
    • Southern hairy-nosed wombat can move at speeds >40 km/h (25 mph) (Taggart & Temple-Smith 2008)

Interspecies Interactions

  • Predators (Jones & Barmuta 1998; Menkhorst & Knight 2011; Triggs 1996)
    • Humans
    • Dingoes (Canis lupus)
      • Introduced 3,500-4,000 years ago by Asian seafarers (Corbett 2008)
    • Wild dogs (feral dog-dingo hybrids)
    • Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes)
      • Introduced in 1860s and 1870s by European settlers for sporting purposes (Catling & Coman 2008)
    • Few natural predators - in Tasmania:
      • Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii)
      • To a lesser extent, male spotted-tailed quolls (Dasyurus maculatus)
  • Defense (Triggs 1996)
    • Crouches in burrow entrance - presents broad, reinforced rump to attacker
      • Responds to touch with powerful thrust against burrow roof/wall - can crush head of attacker
    • In open - can deliver crushing bite, stab with lower incisors

Fast Diggers

Wombat digs a burrow

The muscular forelegs of wombats are adept at excavating burrows.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Finlayson et al. (2005)
Horsup & Johnson (2008)
Jackson (2003)
Johnson (1991)
Johnson (1998)
Matthews & Green (2012)
McIlroy (2008)
Shimmin et al. (2001-2002)
Steele & Temple-Smith (1998)
Taggart & Temple-Smith (2008)
Triggs (1996)
Tyndale-Biscoe (2005)
Walker (2006)
Wells (1989)
Woolnough & Steele (2001)

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