Turns out wombats *can* run at 40km/h

The plot has thickened in one of Australia’s biggest and most important long-standing assumptions – that a wombat can run at 40km/h.

In February, Museums Victoria’s public information team claimed to have debunked long-circulating claims that wombats – particularly southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) – run at speeds of 40km/h.

Why was this fact thrown out? As reported by Cosmos, Museums Victoria could only trace the claim to one source, a 1984 publication by Flinders University archaeologist Emeritus Professor Rod Wells, which he explained was likely the result of survey vehicles keeping pace with the marsupials.

“I think that probably goes back to the late 1960s/early 1970s when we would pursue southern hairy-nosed wombats and catch them using something akin to a lacrosse net. I do not recall anyone using a stopwatch to check their speed,” Wells said.

Museums Victoria had said this isn’t sufficient evidence to prove wombats can run at 40km/h. The idea generated widespread debate and interest and after reading about it, South Australian wombat researchers have come forth with a counterclaim – they say southern hairy-nosed wombats do hit that speed.

David Taggart, a wildlife biologist specialising in marsupial ecology and reproduction, says he has consistently seen the vehicle odometer hit 40km/h while tracking running wombats in the field.

But there are a few caveats.

Firstly – he can say with confidence that this top speed only applies to southern hairy-nosed wombats, the species he works with.

That leaves a question mark over the gait of the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), and common ‘bare-nosed’ wombat (Vombatus ursinus).

Secondly, it’s only been witnessed in southern males during mating season. Taggart contributed those observations on the species to Strahan’s Mammals of Australia, recently republished in 2023.

“They’ll be cruising around looking for females and they’ll get a long way away from the warrens or burrows they know, and then you’ll come across them, and they’ll see you,” Taggart tells Cosmos.

“These big male wombats – they can get up to 38kgs – they’re just solid muscle and they’ll just take off.”

Taggart thinks in unfamiliar territory, the males are spooked by the appearance of the scientific survey utes, so they naturally bolt back home.

That, he says, sees the researchers need to keep line-of-sight with the wombat so they can collect them.

“Within 10-20m, they can hit top speed and then they’ll just be *sheeeeeew*,” he says.

“If they’re more than 200m away from their warren, eventually they’ll get tired and they’ll come to a stop.”

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

When is a scientific fact, a scientific fact?

As an adjunct associate professor at the University of Adelaide with 30 years of experience in wildlife ecology – particularly southern hairy-nosed wombats – David Taggart’s qualifications to comment on what the species can do surely pass the pub test. As it would for any other researcher with his experience.

And Museums Victoria acknowledged Taggart’s field observations in a response to Cosmos, saying:

“As David Taggart notes, our team was not privy to this data because it has not been formally released in a peer-reviewed publication, but we were delighted to learn that it exists and we thank Professor Taggart for pointing it out.”

So, what does it take to verify a fact like this? Is it enough for researchers to simply say they’ve seen it?

Dr Hayley Stannard is an animal physiologist from Charles Sturt University who is studying sarcoptic mange and roadkill reductions with marsupials, including common wombats.

She says that verifying the land speed of a wombat is a tricky undertaking, but that many experts in the field have accepted the 40km/h as fact enough.

“It’s hard to verify. We just sort of accept it and share it and, usually, if we do a talk at a conference or something, we’ll share those sort of anecdotal facts,” she says. “It does get repeated out there in the general public world.”

The difficulty, she says, comes when a ‘fact,’ accepted among scientists but not published as peer-reviewed research, is queried by a public enquiry or factfinding exercise like the one from Museums Victoria.

“Then it does come back to well, are scientists telling us the truth or not? It probably is the truth, but we just don’t have the solid evidence to say for sure.”

Museums Victoria agreed with this perspective. A spokesperson told Cosmos:

“In the absence of published data, extraordinary numbers can seize the collective imagination and risk becoming over-generalised, exaggerated and divorced from their context. It remains that no one has yet accurately measured the speed and endurance of the Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat in a scientifically rigorous way, and there appears to be no data to show that this gallop can be sustained over 150m, or that this can be generalised to all 3 wombat species.”

The challenge of a scientific test for wombat top speed

So could it be done? Could a team of scientists accurately track the bolt of a wombat?

It’s doable but highly unlikely.

As Taggart noted, knowing the exact running speed of a wombat serves little scientific purpose.

But convincing a wombat to run its own 100m dash will also be challenging. Stannard imagines it would involve purpose building an in-the-field running course.

“It would need to be done in a wild setting, hopefully, with nothing interfering with the animal’s natural habitat or ability to run or anything,” she says.

“So you’d need to set up some markers and a space that you’re watching and timing them [to] see how far they go. But then if you want to see their speed capability, you probably do need to scare it or encourage it to run.”

And in a properly designed experiment, as Stannard points out, spooking a wombat in its natural context to run away as fast as it can, will surely need ethics approval.

Museums Victoria concludes by emphasising one of the key tenets of science: nothing is a fact, and everything is disprovable.

“Truth in science is never final: what is accepted as fact today may be rejected by tomorrow based on new observations or data. Museums Victoria is proud to be a source of trusted knowledge, and we welcome any new scientific information that adds to the understanding of Australia’s diverse fauna.”

The upshot is: a wombat can probably run as fast as 40km/h when it needs to. But a rolled gold verification will remain a scientific mystery, for now.

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