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MV’s Public Info Team debunks wombat myth

Jacinta Bowler, Plucky museum employee debunks wombat top speed, Cosmos, 29 February 2024

(Posnov/Getty Images)

A group of museum workers has uncovered a wombat ‘fact’ that has stood strong for at least 20 years is actually a furphy.

Work at the Museums Victoria public information team is varied to say the least. The public send in all sorts of questions, and it’s this team’s job to get to the bottom of it.

Everything from discovered backyard dinosaur bones (usually they’re just animals) or meteorite detections (usually they’re just rocks) goes through this team.

“A postgrad doing a big project wants to do destructive testing on a bettong specimen or somebody writing a history of a local area needs to know what photographs we have in the collection – that sort of thing,” says Siobhan Motherway, Manager of the team.

So, one day, when a member of the public called in and asked where the original source was for the ‘fact’ that wombats run up to 40km/h over 150 metres, Motherway and the team got to work.

“If you’ve done any cursory search on the internet, that’s a fact about wombats that’s really widely spread. It’s everywhere,” she told Cosmos.

“I call it people’s second favourite fact about wombats – cubed poo is obviously number one.”

Even Cosmos Magazine has repeated it in the past, along with museums and other reputable institutions.

But 40km/h is very fast, almost pipping Usain Bolt’s 43.99 km/hour world record for the 100metres dash.

The first online use of the wombat speed fact was in a 2006 ABC science article, but going back into the Museums Victoria library they started to find more obscure publications form the state environment department.

“We followed the most obscure breadcrumb trail until we finally tracked it back to what we thought was the original source, which was Professor Rod Wells, who’s now a professor emeritus of palaeontology, at Flinders University.

“His honours work and PhD work with southern hairy nose wombats in South Australia started in the late 60s, early 70s.”

The study team were driving a car to catch a southern hairy nose wombat and the odometer had reached 40 km/h. The study also mentioned that it can maintain a sprinting gait over 150 metres, but likely not 40 km/h.

“They are disconcertingly athletic for something that looks like a potato with legs,” laughs Motherway.

“But the numbers that have been attached to it, and the overgeneralization of an observation made about the southern hairy nosed wombat then being applied to all species. We don’t have the data to support that.”

So, it seems that our second favourite wombat fact has been debunked. But by clearing the myth, it may allow a new generation of researchers to test how fast wombats really are, and maybe even allow more mammal myths to be debunked by the team.

“Bring on the weird facts,” said Motherway. “I really enjoyed doing it, and I’d happily do more.”