■ David Catchpoole
WHEN EUROPEANS first encountered the Australian creature we know as the wombat,
they ate it.1 Some consider wombats
deserving of ‘elevated conservation
status’ to ensure their preservation. But
in 1797, sailors from the shipwrecked
Sydney Cove had their own preservation
in mind when, marooned for a year on
Preservation Island in Bass Strait, they
ate cooked wombat to survive.
Accompanying the rescue party was
Matthew Flinders, who later became a
great navigator/explorer. He took a live
wombat back to Sydney, presenting it
to the colonial Governor, John Hunter.
When it died six weeks later, Hunter
had it preserved in spirits and sent to
the famous naturalist Sir Joseph Banks
in London. In the accompanying letter,
the Governor noted:
It is about the size of a badger, a
species of which we supposed
it to be, from its dexterity of
burrowing in the earth, by means
of its forepaws; but on watching
its general motions, it appeared
to have much of the habits and
manner of a bear ... 1
Well equipped with powerful claws and
shoulders, reports indicate that wombats
can dig through 1.8 metres ( 6 ft) of hard
soil in an hour.
2 They use their incisor
teeth to cut through underground
obstructions such as roots.
The wombat is widely considered an
agricultural pest, and not just because of
its burrowing habits and its appetite for
pasture grass (being semi-nocturnal, it
mostly feeds at night). It can also cause
considerable damage to rabbit-proof
fences when it powerfully pushes its
stocky body and wide pelvis through
them. Wombats were declared vermin in
1906 in the State of Victoria—and still
are, though population control requires
3 Elsewhere in Australia,
wombats are protected by legislation.
Revealing underground secrets
Burrow diameter closely matches the
wombat’s size—up to half a metre ( 20
in) wide, large enough for a small person
to crawl into. In 1960, schoolboy Peter
Nicholson did just that, mapping
the larger burrows he explored
in the bushland surrounding his school
in central Victoria. The written account
of his wombat investigation, for which
he won a student science talent prize,
still regarded as one of the most useful
in-depth studies of wombats published.
Nicholson’s and later research showed
wombat burrows can be up to 30 metres
(100 ft) long and 3. 5 metres ( 11 ft) deep,
with multiple sleeping chambers, side
tunnels, and extra entrances.
When threatened by a predator (e.g.
a dingo5), a wombat scurries into the
nearest burrow and wedges itself so its
very thick-skinned rump blocks the way
of the pursuing attacker. Sometimes a
wombat may allow an intruder to force
its head over the wombat’s back, and
then the wombat uses its powerful leg
muscles to stand up forcefully and thus
suffocate the predator, or even crush
its skull against the roof of the burrow.
Crushed skulls of foxes and dogs have
been found in wombat burrows.