Northern hairy-nosed wombat: the “hard-arse” of the Australian bush

Name: Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii); also known as Yaminon by First Nations people.

Size: Average length 1m (head and body) and weight 32kg.

Diet: Grass

Habitat/range: Fossil records indicate northern hairy-nosed wombats once ranged across  Australia from southern NSW to north Queensland. Today, only one natural population exists in Epping Forest National Park (Scientific) in central Queensland, with one small, reintroduced population in south-west Queensland.

Conservation status: Critically endangered

Superpower: The northern hairy-nosed wombat has a hard backside that serves as “armour” when it defends itself against predators.

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Northern hairy-nosed wombat. Credit: Donovan Klein Epping

The northern hairy-nosed wombat is the largest, and the rarest, of the three wombat species in the Family Vombatidae. Like the southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons) and bare-nosed wombat (Vombatus ursinus), all three are marsupials – also known as pouched mammals – but with backward-facing pouches to avoid kicking dirt on the joeys while digging burrows. Northern hairy-nosed wombats are the largest burrowing herbivorous mammal on Earth. One extensive burrow has more than 90 metres of tunnels and six entrances.

Wombats and their closest relative, the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), have super tough backsides that are used for entirely different reasons. When escaping a predator, wombats run into a burrow leaving their hard rump exposed, which blocks the entrance and protects the more vulnerable body areas. Koalas use their hard backside to help them sit comfortably for long hours in tree forks.

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Southern hairy-nosed wombats are similar in appearance to their northern cousins, but smaller in size, with shorter ears and a smaller hairy nose. Bare-nosed wombats, also known as the common wombat, have noses covered in grainy skin, much like koalas. The grey-brown fur of the northern species is the softest of all the wombats.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat is quite sedentary, sleeping up to 18 hours a day, and they don’t do anything in a hurry! If it is too hot, too cold, too humid or too dry, they stay down their burrow and sleep, conserving energy. Their conservative lifestyle is thought to be why they can live at least 28 years in the wild. Despite this lifestyle, and their stout, short-limbed appearance, they are capable of running in bursts at speeds up to 40km/h.

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Northern hairy-nosed wombat mother and joey. Credit: Alan Horsup

We are very lucky northern hairy-nosed wombats are still in existence. Numbers were as low as 30 in the 1970s, and there are now around 315 in two sites, but they are still one of the most endangered mammal species in the world. Plans are firmly underway to establish a third site within the next two years, and several new populations over the next decade.

One reason for this is their fairly slow reproductive rate, with females producing only one joey every couple of years. Breeding is mainly in November to March (wet season) so, after nine months of pouch life and three months suckling, the joey starts eating solid food in the next growing season.

Their diet is 100% grass, and because of the high silica content of grasses they have continuous growing teeth, like rodents. And, like the other two species of wombat, their dung is cubed!

If ever a precious Australian mammal needed help, it’s this one. You can start by giving the northern hairy-nosed wombat your vote.

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