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Wombats (Vombatus and Lasiorhinus spp.) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

AttributeCommon Wombat, Vombatus ursinus**Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat, Lasiorhinus krefftiiSouthern Hairy-Nosed Wombat, Lasiorhinus latifrons
Body weight 22-39 kg (48.5-86.0 lb) Males: 28.6-33.4 kg (63.1-76.3 lb) Females: 28.9-34.9 kg (63.7-76.9 lb) Male: 19-36 kg (41.9-79.4 lb)
Female: 17.5-36 kg (38.6-79.4 lb)
Head-body length 840-1150 mm (33.1-45.3 in) Male: 1028-1130 mm (40.5-45.0 in)
Female: 1037-1125 mm (40.8- 44.3 in)
Male: 840-1110 mm (33.1-43.7 in)
Female: 850-1100 mm (33.5-43.3 in)
Tail Length 25 mm (1.0 in) 25 mm (1.0 in) Male: 30-60 mm (1.2-2.4 in)
Female: 25-54 mm (1.0-2.1 in)
Data sources McIlroy (2008) Horsup & Johnson (2008); Menkhorst & Knight (2011) Taggart & Temple-Smith (2008)

**Note: Tasmanian and Flinders Island subspecies slightly smaller.

General Appearance

  • Skin and pelage (Moeller 1990)
    • Common wombat
      • Hair long, thick, coarse
      • Yellow-gray, sandy, to black; a few individuals cream-colored
    • Northern hairy-nosed wombat
      • Hair short, silky
      • Brown-gray, brown streaked with gray, brown, or black
    • Southern hairy-nosed wombat
      • Hair short, silky
      • Silver-gray or mottled brown-gray
      • Neck and chest often white
    • Skin strong, resistant to injury
      • Extremely tough over posterior third of back - "hard as a board" (Moeller 1990)
  • Body and limbs (Horsup & Johnson 2008; McIlroy 2008; Moeller 1990; Taggart & Temple-Smith 2008)
    • Body - stocky, powerful, adapted to digging
      • Short, stout limbs and short neck
      • Massive, broad skull, flattened dorsoventrally (top to bottom)
      • Large, broad sacrum (pelvic bone)
    • Back - slopes down to vestigial tail (usually hidden in fur)
    • Forelegs- muscular
      • Feet with 5 forward-facing toes
      • Strong, flattened claws for digging
    • Hind legs- weaker, rotated inward (pigeon-toed)
      • Feet narrow, first toe long and nailless, points inward (similar to koalas and phalangers)
      • 2nd and 3rd toes joined by skin (syndactyly) (similar to phalangers, jumping marsupials, bandicoots)
    • Feet - rough, granular soles with thick pads
  • Head (Horsup & Johnson 2008; McIlroy 2008; Moeller 1990; Taggart & Temple-Smith 2008, Hume 1999)
    • Shape
      • Common wombat - broad forehead tapering to rounded muzzle
      • Hairy-nosed wombats - wide, flat forehead with large, square muzzle
    • Eyes - small
    • Ears - small/rounded in common wombat, longer/pointed in hairy-nosed wombats
    • Nose - rhinarium (nose pad) is bare in common wombat, covered with fine hairs in hairy-nosed wombats
    • Mouth
      • Split upper lip allows grazing close to ground (Hume 1999)
      • Rodent-like teeth- specialized for grazing diet (Wells 1987; Murray 1998)
        • 1 pair incisors, no canine teeth, large diastema (gap), 1 pair premolars, 4 pairs molars
          • Only marsupial that has only 1 pair upper incisors
        • Teeth are rootless and grow continuously
          • Only marsupial that has continuously growing teeth
        • Molars tall with specialized surfaces for shearing and grinding plant material under high compressive forces
          • Opposing blades formed by high enamel ridges on tongue side of upper teeth, cheek side of lower teeth

Sexual Dimorphism

  • No major differences between the sexes (Triggs 1996)

Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics

  • Adaptations to grazing diet (Murray 1998)
    • Continual tooth growth allows exploitation of wider variety of abundant but coarse and abrasive foods (leaves, stems, rhizomes, bark, etc.) - counteracts rapid wear
    • Specialized teeth stand up to high compressive forces required for grazing diet
    • Broad flat skulls, powerful jaw muscles
    • Small, acidic stomach; simple digestive tract; microbial fermentation in hindgut (Barboza 1993)
  • Adaptations to small home range with limited/variable food and water (Johnson 1998)
    • Energetically frugal lifestyle - extremely low energy use for a mammal (Evans et al. 2003)
    • Metabolic and digestive strategies (Barboza 1993; Evans et al. 2003; Johnson 1998)
      • Low requirements for energy and nitrogen, low metabolic rates (Hume & Barboza 1998)
        • Northern hairy-nosed wombat most extreme in one study (Evans et al. 2003)
          • FMR (food intake necessary for energy expended) only 40% of value predicted for mammal of similar size
          • Varies seasonally - dry season FMR about half that of wet season
      • Digestion differs between species - adapted to variations in food quantity and quality in different habitats
        • Common wombat - high-capacity digestive tract to extract energy from large amounts of low-quality food
        • Hairy-nosed wombats - can extract energy from less food as it moved slowly through long digestive tract
      • Water use strategies (Evans et al. 2003)
        • Use less water than other marsupials
          • Far below predicted value for herbivorous mammal of comparable size
          • Northern hairy-nosed wombat water flux rate one of lowest for any mammal (25% of predicted value)
        • Lack sweat glands
          • Conserves water but increases susceptibility to heat stress
      • Common wombat has thick, coarse fur to cope with low temperatures
        • One of few marsupials active above snowline in winter
    • Defensive adaptations
      • Posterior has pronounced slope, extremely tough skin, tiny tail
      • Threatened wombat blocks burrow entrance by standing with head in and rear out
    • Adaptations for semi-fossorial (burrowing) lifestyle
      • Short, stout, muscular front legs with long, flat claws on forefeet - effective for digging
      • Rear-opening pouch with opening controlled by sphincter muscle - minimizes dirt entry (Triggs 1996)
      • High tolerance for hypoxia/hypercapnia (low oxygen/high CO2 levels in blood) (Steele & Temple-Smith 1998)
        • Allows wombats to spend extended time in burrows with limited air circulation
        • Southern hairy-nosed wombat study - severe respiratory challenges encountered in burrow (Shimmin et al. 2001-2002):
          • Unoccupied burrows - 20.9% O2, 0.04% CO2 (similar to outside)
          • Occupied burrows - as low as 16.3% O2, as high as 2.6% CO2

    Other Physical Characteristics

    • Senses & nervous system (Triggs 1996; Wells 1987)
      • Poor eyesight, good hearing, keen sense of smell (based on observation, not confirmed)
      • Large brain
    • Digestive system (Barboza 1993)
      • Plant cell contents digested in small, acidic stomach and simple small intestine
        • Stomach very small compared to most herbivores
        • Lining organized into specialized cardio-gastric gland - multiple pouches open into stomach through 25-30 large holes
      • Plant cell walls digested by hind-gut fermentation (similar to koalas, different from kangaroos)
        • Large colon packed with dense population of bacteria
        • Food particles pass through very slowly, giving time for breakdown by microbial fermentation
          • Average time 52-62 h in one study (Barboza 1993)
    • Urogenital system (Triggs 1996)
      • Cloaca - urine and feces released from single posterior opening, as in all marsupials
      • Female reproductive organs
        • 2-horned uterus
        • Rear-opening pouch contains 2 teats
      • Male reproductive organs
        • Testes in heart-shaped scrotum suspended from lower abdomen
        • Penis bifurcated (branched) at end with backward-facing spines; stored retracted in body (Wells 1987)

    Wombat

    Wombats have round, stocky bodies adapted for living underground.

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

    Feet for Digging

    Five toes of a wombat

    Wombats have strong toenails for digging. These nails are present even early in development.

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

    Page Citations

    Barboza (1993)
    Evans et al. (2003)
    Horsup & Johnson (2008)
    Hume (1999)
    Hume & Barboza (1998)
    Johnson (1998)
    McIlroy (2008)
    Menkhorst & Knight (2011)
    Moeller (1990)
    Murray (1998)
    Steele & Temple-Smith (1998)
    Taggart & Temple-Smith (2008)
    Triggs (1996)
    Wells (1987)

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