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: 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)

SDZWA Library Links