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: 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 Wildlife Alliance. 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 Wildlife Alliance. 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)

    SDZWA Library Links