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Wombats (Vombatus and Lasiorhinus spp.) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Wombat family
    • Originally Phascolomyidae; replaced by Vombatidae
    • Name derived from wambad, the animal's name in Dharuk (an Australian aboriginal language)
      • First known use 1798
  • Common wombat (Vombatus ursinus)
    • First wombat species described, by Shaw in 1800
      • Didelphus ursina - original name
      • Phascolomys proposed by Saint-Hilaire in 1803, preferred name in 19th century
      • Vombatus proposed by Desmarest in 1803, accepted name in 20th century
    • 3 extant subspecies recognized: V. u. ursinus, V. u. hirsutus, V. u. tasmaniensis
    • Common names (Moeller 1990)
      • Common wombat (most common of the 3 species)
      • Also: naked-nosed wombat, coarse-haired wombat, island wombat, Tasmanian wombat, forest wombat
      • Originally called "native badgers" by settlers, sometimes "native bears" by farmers
    • Scientific name (Gove 1971; McIlroy 2008; Moeller 1990)
      • Vombatus from Australian aboriginal wambad (see above) + ursinus (bearlike) from Latin ursus for "bear"
      • Recent synonyms: Phascolomys mitchelli, Phascolomys ursinus, Vombatus hirsutus
  • Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii)
    • Described by Owen in 1872
    • 1 extant subspecies recognized: L. k. barnardi
    • 2 extinct subspecies recognized: L. k. gillespiei and L. k. krefftii
    • Common names (Gove 1971; Jackson 2003; Moeller 1990)
      • Northern hairy-nosed wombat (northern distribution, hairs on rhinarium)
      • Also: Queensland wombat, Queensland hairy-nosed wombat, Moonie River wombat, yaminon (given by Aboriginal peoples)
    • Scientific name (Gove 1971; Horsup & Johnson 2008; Jackson 2003)
      • Lasiorhinus (hairy-nosed) from Greek lasios for "shaggy" + rhin- for "nose," krefftii after Gerrard Krefft, former Australian Museum curator
      • Recent synonyms: Wombatula gillespiei, Lasiorhinus gillespiei, Lasiorhinus latifrons gillespiei, Lasiorhinus barnardi, Lasiorhinus latifrons barnardi
  • Southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons)
    • Described by Owen in 1845
    • No subspecies described
    • Common names (Gove 1971; Jackson 2003; Moeller 1990)
      • Southern hairy-nosed wombat (southern distribution, hairs on rhinarium)
      • Also: hairy-nosed wombat, soft-furred wombat, long-eared wombat
    • Scientific name (Gove 1971; Taggart & Temple-Smith 2008; Jackson 2003)
      • Lasiorhinus (hairy-nosed) - see above
      • latifrons (broad forehead), from Latin latus for "wide, broad" + frons for "forehead" (Jackson 2003; Gove 1971)
      • Recent synonyms: None




Evolutionary History

  • Cloest relatives to wombats: koalas (Murray 1998)
    • Vombatidae (wombat) and Phascolarctidae (koala) are the only surviving families of suborder Vombatiformes
    • Wombat and koala lineages split prior to late Oligocene epoch
  • Earliest wombats (Murray 1998; Brewer 2008)
    • Rhizophascolonus species (rooted-toothed wombats) - appeared in late Oligocene/early Miocene
      • Rhizophascolonus crowcrofti - earliest described vombatid
        • Appeared in late Oligocene/early Miocene
        • Known only from a few isolated fossil cheek teeth
    • These primitive vombatids were only ones with closed roots (teeth did not grow continuously)
    • Much of Australia covered by semitropical forests during this time
  • Emergence of diverse species - late Miocene to Pleistocene (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005; Woolnough & Steele 2001)
    • A variety of different wombat species evolved
    • Many were larger than extant (currently living) species
    • 3 major genera
      • Warendja wakefieldi
        • Lived from 10 million years ago (late Miocene) to 40,000 years ago (Pleistocene)
        • Least specialized, smallest - up to 20 kg (45 lb)
        • Resembled very large rabbit
      • Phascolonus gigas - giant wombat
        • Lived from 5 million years ago (Pliocene) to 40,000 years ago (Pleistocene)
        • Largest wombat ever in existence
          • 180-250 kg (400-550 lb)
          • About 6 times the body mass and 2 times the length of the 3 extant wombat species
      • Phascolomys medius
        • Lived from 2 million years ago (Pliocene) to 40,000 years ago (Pleistocene)
        • Up to 80 kg (175 lb)
    • Extinction likely due to changing environmental conditions (Triggs 1996)
      • Series of ice ages in Pleistocene - cold temperatures caused landscape to become increasingly dry
  • Extant genera (Tyndale-Biscoe 2005)
    • Vombatus and Lasiorhinus genera emerged about 2 million years ago (Pleistocene)
    • Originally much wider distribution than today
      • Vombatus - throughout Queensland, south-eastern Australia, Tasmania, islands in Bass Strait
      • Lasiorhinus - widespread across inland Australia
        • 3 subspecies of L. krefftii known in modern times: L. k. barnardi, L. k. gillespiei, L. k. krefftii
        • Only 1 remnant population still extant (subspecies unknown)
  • Origins of burrowing in Vombatidae (reviewed in Woolnough & Steele 2001)
    • Debated - burrowing may be recent adaptation in smaller wombat ancestor
      • Advantage - water conservation, allowed extant species to survive increasing aridity of last 2 million years
    • Giant wombat likely did not burrow
      • Very large grazing animal - chest girth about 3 times larger than the extant species
        • Would need such large-diameter burrows that they would collapse in all but hard soil types
        • But digging large burrows in hard soils would require unreasonable amount of time and energy
      • Little time for digging - needed to spend most of its time eating and foraging over large range to meet its energy needs

Cultural History

  • Aboriginal people (Triggs 1996)
    • Arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago
    • Hunted wombats for food
      • One tribe's hunting practices detailed in 2005 book Wardugu Wirn - Hunting for Wombat: A Wirnagu Story Book (Monaghan 2012)
    • Made string from wombat fur
  • European settlers (Triggs 1996)
    • Arrived in Australia about 200 years ago
    • Hunted wombats for food and to remove what they considered a pest
    • First island wombat encounter
      • Ship Sydney Cove wrecked on Preservation Island in Bass Strait (near Tasmania), 1797
      • Wombats found - became mainstay of diet that kept sailors alive one year until rescued
      • Rescuer Matthew Flinders returned to Sydney Town with live wombat, presented to Governor Hunter
      • Wombat lived 6 weeks - Hunter sent preserved specimen to London, noting mountain natives called it a wombach
    • First mainland wombat encounter
      • James Wilson and John Price - expedition into Blue Mountains west of Sydney, 1798
      • Price gave first European description of a wombat: "an animal about 20 inches high, with short legs and a thick body with a large head, round ears, and very small eyes, is very fat and has much the appearance of a badger" (Triggs 1996, p. 9)
  • Present day (Triggs 1996)
    • Many humans consider wombats a pest
      • Wombats damage fences, vehicles fall through roofs of burrows
      • Farmers/ranchers dig up burrows, shoot/poison wombats
    • Other humans rescue orphaned wombats in pouch (4-8 months old) from road-killed mothers
      • Well-intentioned people attempt hand-rearing, but young wombats challenging to raise
        • Gnawing, digging behaviors - very destructive
        • Demand constant attention, bite for attention
        • Very active at night
        • High death rate - stress, insufficient warmth, incorrect diet
      • Law requires surrender to appropriate wildlife authority
        • Will send to refuge/individuals with previous rearing success, return to wild when ready
  • Children's books
    • Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French (2002)
    • Wombat Walkabout, Carol Diggery Shields (2009)
    • How to Scratch a Wombat: Where to Find It ... What to Feed It ... Why It Sleeps All Day, Jackie French (2009)
    • Diary of a Baby Wombat, Jackie French (2010)
  • Local interest
    • Wombat Day - October 22 in Australia (unofficial)
    • Southern hairy-nosed wombat is South Australia's faunal emblem


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Diprotondontia - koalas, wombats, possums, and macropods (kangaroos, wallabies, etc.)

Family: Vombatidae - wombats

Genus: Vombatus (É. Geoffroy, 1803)

Species: Vombatus ursinus (Shaw, 1800) - common wombat (or bare-nosed wombat)

Subspecies: V. u. ursinus (Shaw, 1800)
Subspecies: V. u. hirsutus (Perry, 1810)
Subspecies: V. u. tasmaniensis (Spencer & Kershaw, 1910)

Genus: Lasiorhinus (J. Gray, 1863)

Species: Lasiorhinus krefftii (Owen, 1872) - northern hairy-nosed womat

Subspecies: L. k. barnardi (Longman, 1939)
Subspecies: L. k. gillespiei (extinct) (De Vis, 1900)
Subspecies: L. k. krefftii (extinct) (Owen, 1873)

Species: Lasiorhinus latifrons (Owen, 1845) - southern hairy-nosed womat

Source: Jackson and Groves (2015)

Common Wombat, Vombatus ursinus

Common wombat

Wombats were first scientifically described in 1800.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Brewer (2008)
Gove (1971)
ITIS (2012)
Horsup & Johnson (2008)
Jackson (2003)
McIlroy (2008)
Moeller (1990)
Monaghan (2012)
Murray (1998
Owen (1845)
Owen (1872)
Shaw (1800)
Taggart & Temple-Smith (2008)
Tyndale-Biscoe (2005)
Triggs (1996)
Woolnough & Steele (2001)

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