Southern hairy-nosed wombat: the burrowing bulldozers of the Aussie outback

Name: Southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons)

Size: 84-110cm in length, tubby/rotund (adults 23-38 kg)

Diet: Grasses, leaves, tubers, and roots

Habitat: Native grasslands with suitable soils for construction of their massive warren structures. Can be found in the southern semi-arid regions of South Australia and south-east Western Australia

Conservation status: Near threatened

Superpowers: Marsupial equivalent of an excavator. Can crush fox and dingo skulls with their bony bum. Can stay underground for more than a week and survive drought and temperature extremes that would peel paint.

Dr david taggart. Southern hairy nosed wombat lounging on top of its warren.
Southern hairy-nosed wombat lounging on top of its warren. Credit: Dr David Taggart

The southern hairy-nosed wombat is perhaps Australia’s most beautiful, secretive and charismatic mammal. Despite a troubled relationship with farmers, they are much loved and are South Australia’s faunal emblem. This status is well-deserved, as this species is as tough as boot leather, cool as a cucumber, and a true Aussie battler. Their stumpy legs and pigeon-toed feet defy the fact that they are lightning fast when they want to be, running up to 40km/h. Their powerful paws and broad claws make them a digging sensation, and well deserving of the title “Bulldozers of the Bush”.

This stocky, nocturnal enigma has evolved a wicked combination of physiological and behavioural adaptations to survive and thrive in Australia’s harsh and unforgiving outback, where access to free water is rare. They have an incredibly low metabolism, very low water requirements, and produce very dry scats, conserving every drop of moisture possible. Looking at their habitat, you might think they eat nothing but rocks and sticks for breakfast, but they actually have a broad diet. They have even developed continually growing teeth to cope with their abrasive tucker.

Their most important arid adaptation is their burrows. Warrens used by southern hairy-nosed wombats can be more than 100 years old, and are passed down through generations. Warrens allow them to escape extremes in temperature and humidity above ground, enabling them to conserve water and energy. They can even block themselves in a burrow with a wall of dirt to further reduce water loss.

Hairy-noses are also a considerate mob, sharing their homes with all manner of critters that can’t burrow. Remote cameras have observed more than 50 different species using their burrows for shelter, from rock-wallabies, quolls and possums, to lizards, snakes and even fairy penguins.

Adult southern hairy-nosed wombat
An adult southern hairy-nosed wombat on the move. Credit: Shannon Kleemann

Apart from digging, there are two things that southern hairy-nosed wombats really excel at: eating and sleeping! They are often seen dozing on top of their warrens, or on their back in a burrow, snoring with their legs in the air.  These wombats can snooze for a week without surfacing if there is not much tucker about or it’s not breeding season. When they do come above ground, they normally wander just far enough to get a good feed, or to scratch their butt on their favourite post.

Although usually very peaceful, southern hairy-nosed wombats will stand up for themselves in a fight, crushing fox or dog skulls against the burrow roof with their bony bum, or delivering a bite with their powerful jaws and teeth that leaves you feeling like you’ve slammed your hand in a car door!

They are also mischievous. For instance, they have been known to eat boots, pipes, telephone cables and crops; undermine roads, fence posts and gates; and even dig up old grandpa’s bones from his grave! They also don’t bat an eye lid at giving zoo-keepers plenty of grief, with some having to walk around with their legs in metal rubbish bins to protect themselves from getting a friendly nip.

Drought, declining native grasslands and climate change are the biggest threats to their future survival. But having seen a car wheel break through a wombat burrow and land on top of a wombat’s head, and then see the wombat just get up and gallop off, I think this little Aussie battler is up for the challenge!

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