Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

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 Wildlife Alliance. 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)

SDZWA Library Links