They look cute and cuddly for sure, but we all know that a fluffy appearance can be deceptive, especially when it comes to the weird wildlife of Down Under! Therefore, before you scoop one of these stout and square animals up to give it a big hug, it is better to make sure and ask: Are wombats dangerous?
As with most wild animals, the answer is: no, as long as they are left alone! Adult wombats enjoy a solitary lifestyle and do not even like to socialize with other wombats, much less with humans. While baby wombats are truly as cuddly and affectionate as they look, contact with adult wombats should be avoided.
They are fast and strong for their small size and when they attack by running straight towards someone, they can make people topple over easily. And once you find yourself beneath an angry wombat, biting and clawing at you, it is basically impossible to escape without help.
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Wombat-to-wombat communication is equally aggressive – they even flirt by bites to the butt and kicks to the face! This is not as dangerous as it sounds, though. Wombat butts are specifically designed to withstand all kinds of attacks and are commonly considered to be their greatest weapon.
A wombat butt is made of four fused bone plates that are surrounded by cartilage, fat, skin, and fur. Wombats often use their backside to block the entrance to their burrows, and they are able to crush the skulls of smaller animals like foxes.
How Did Wombats Get Their Name?
The word wombat comes from the Darug language, spoken by the Aboriginal Darug people. While European settlers and explorers did not always take on the indigenous names for the plants and animals they encountered, in the case of the wombat they did, even though the original name has more likely been wumbat or womat.
Other spellings over the years included, among others, ‘wombach’, ‘womback’, and ‘wambat’. The variations in spelling are said to reflect different Darug dialects.
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What Did Wombats Evolve From?
How did a creature like this, combining adorableness, a dangerous butt, square poop, and a pouch, even come into being?
Wombats belong to the clade of marsupials. Some other marsupials are, for example, kangaroos, koalas, and opossums. What they all have in common is that they carry their young in a pouch, as opposed to placentals, those kinds of mammals that carry their young in their uterus until a comparatively late stage of development.
Modern marsupials have existed since the Palaeocene – that is, 66 to 56 million years ago. They originated from extinct metatherians, which have lived on earth from the Late Jurassic or Early Cretaceous period on, since about 150 million years ago. Methatherians is a clade of mammals that includes all extinct mammals that are more closely related to marsupials than to placentals.
The oldest ancestor of the marsupials that has been identified to date is a mouse-sized skeleton found in China. The skeleton, that has been discovered in 2003, is 125 million years old, which was a really exciting find because it extended the known ancestry of marsupials back about 50 million years!
In the Late Oligocene, which began about 28 million years ago, the vombatiformes developed. This is the suborder of marsupials that wombats, as well as koalas, belong to. The order was even named after wombats and the term translates roughly to “wombat shaped” – this refers to animals that have the typical compact body shape.
The earliest signs of a wombat-like creature have been discovered in the Lake Eyre Basin in South Australia. A 25 million-year-old partially fossilized skeleton has been uncovered in 1973 and the species was called Mukupirna, which means “big bones” in the Dieri and Malyangapa Aboriginal languages.
Ignored and forgotten, the skeleton spent some decades in the drawers of the natural history collection of the American Natural History Museum in New York until it was rediscovered about ten years ago by the paleontologist Julien Louys.
Louys and his colleagues describe the ancient wombat as four to five times larger than today’s wombats. Larger does not mean more dangerous, though – at least not in this case. A look at the skeleton’s teeth reveals that this animal likely enjoyed softer plants than the hard grasses that modern wombats eat.
While this find added an important piece to our understanding of the evolution of marsupials, there are still many gaps left to fill, since, unfortunately, fossils of mammal skeletons are quite rare in Australia.