Every October 22, International Wombat Day is celebrated. It is an important date to remember that wombats, like any animal, deserve to live in a healthy habitat that is large enough for them to develop in peace.
Wombats are marsupials native to Australia, where they have adapted to different habitats, such as forests, snowy mountains, and hot moorlands.
They have short legs, perfect for digging. Still, they are quite agile when it comes to escaping and can run up to 40km/h over short distances; they can also jump up to a meter in height. Despite their size, they dig burrows up to 30 meters long and several meters deep. Each burrow has sub-tunnels that can connect with those of other burrows, forming a network; they also have sleeping rooms! Due to their engineering, these homes are kept at a constant temperature, fluctuating around 1 degree Celsius throughout the year. Wombat occupy a territory of between 5 and 25 hectares, where they have around 12 burrows, although they mostly use 3 or 4 of them.
Wombats have very small eyes and poor vision, but excellent senses of hearing and smell. They are herbivorous and generally come out to eat roots, grass and bark at night or after dark. Although they use some vocalizations, they communicate primarily through scent.
As in all marsupials, females are characterized by having a skin pouch where their young end their development. In the case of wombats, the pouch has the opening towards the rear, to protect the young from dirt when digging. Normally, the young stay in the pouch for 7 to 10 months, staying with their mothers until they are about 1 1/2 years old.
Although common wombats are solitary, there are more social subspecies that form colonies. In general, they prefer to have their burrow to themselves, but are capable of sharing it in certain situations. Wombats have been documented fighting over a burrow, until a fox, a human that scares them, or some other danger appears, and they decide to share it.
During the massive bushfires in Australia, their burrows also served as a refuge for animals of other species. Additionally, by digging and living in burrows, wombats bring important nutrients to the surface, helping to improve soil quality and health. Therefore, they offer various ecological services of great importance.
Wombats can live up to 26 years in the wild. Although some canines, eagles and Tasmanian devils eat wombats, they do not have many natural predators, and they also know how to defend themselves against them very well. For example, cameras have caught wombats smothering dingoes against the walls of their burrows. However, their populations are currently very low and two of the three wombat subspecies are in danger of extinction.
The main threats to wombats are related to the loss of habitat and food availability due to cattle ranching, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and climate change. The growth of agricultural activity puts wombats, humans and introduced animals in conflict. Wombats are forced to compete with other grazing animals for food and in many cases, out of starvation, destroy fences or farmland. For this reason, many farmers see them as pests and kill them. On other occasions, they die from poison placed for other animals considered pests, such as rabbits. On the other hand, despite the fact that their burrows protect them from fire, prolonged bushfires, floods and drought have left their habitat decimated, causing many to suffer from hunger and thirst, in some cases even to starvation death.
If you’re wondering how you can help them, remember that a plant-based diet emits fewer greenhouse gases, uses less land and water, and doesn’t introduce animals where they don’t belong. We can all reduce our ecological footprint and help all animals (including ourselves and wombats) by choosing to live vegan and demanding more drastic measures from governments to protect the planet.