How do we know wombats can run at 40km/h? Turns out we don't
We hate to be the bearers of bad news but your favourite fact about wombats doesn’t stack up (unlike the cubed poo).
You’ve probably heard the story that wombats can run as fast as 40 kilometres per hour.
It’s an amazing speed for something with such short legs, which might explain why this fantastical story is repeated so often—and by reliable sources in news, zoos, and museum websites (including ours, in the past).
But is it really true?
Well, a man named Tim wondered the same thing and asked our Public Information team:
‘I've seen the often quoted speed of 40km/h associated with the wombat. I believe this to be a modern myth and have not found a single primary source evidencing this…Can you please help me either find a source or paper where a wombat’s speed is actually measured?’
It got us thinking—where did the 40km/h figure actually come from?
Which led to a not-so-quick trip down a wombat hole.
Keeping pace with the truth
The Public Information team is used to dealing with some curly questions, but the source of the wombat speed was a challenge to chase down.
After exhausting the usual unsourced repetitions of the claim, including many dead ends, our searches led us to a government publication that specifically cited the fieldwork of a ‘Wells’ in 1984.
A look at the museum’s library unearthed a book that confirmed Rod Wells studied Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats in South Australia as part of his PhD thesis in the 1960s and 70s.
This thesis detailed the methodology for the fieldwork involving this specific species of wombat, but not of the 40km/h figure.
So, we reached out to Rod Wells, now Professor Emeritus of Palaeontology at Flinders University, to try to get a definitive answer.
But how to let someone know that a tiny fragment of their old research from a former life has been exaggerated and repeated, taking on a life of its own, without sounding like we’re looking to pin it on him?
Fortunately, Professor Wells took the news well and was most gracious in his response.
He wrote back almost immediately, agreeing with us about his work being the likely point of germination of the 40 km/h figure.
‘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,’ he wrote.
And he did remember them being capable of some speed.
‘They can bound quite fast over a short distance 100—200m, as they seek refuge in a burrow. At slower speeds they trot or walk,’ wrote Professor Wells.
But as for wombats being 40km/h fast?
‘I do not recall anyone using a stop watch to check their speed. It is more likely that the pursuit vehicle accelerated to 40km/h to catch them,’ he wrote.
‘I certainly do not recall an animal bounding alongside the vehicle at a sustained 40km/h, that is Usain Bolt (100m world record holder) territory.
‘I think this number may well have been misquoted out of context.’
And as for how it got taken out of context?
Professor Wells thought it could have been an off hand comment about his research to a documentary film-maker he worked with in the 1970s.
‘One has to be so careful with words,’ he wrote.
Professor Wells even sent us a photo of a wombat at speed—a definite athlete, focused and aerodynamic as a wombat can get.
But still not giving Usain Bolt a run for his money.
So if Professor Wells’ misconstrued comment was the origin of the 40km/h wombat speed figure, where does that leave us?
Coming back to Tim’s original question: ‘Can you please help me either find a source or paper where a wombat’s speed is actually measured?’
No, we can’t.
There is a possibility one hit the magic number of approximately 11 metres per second at some point during a chase but that specific observation is lost to time.
And, as Professor Wells told us, he never actually checked the speed of the wombats.
That 40km/h figure was around the top speed pacing vehicles hit when catching up to a startled wombat, specifically a startled Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons).
Professor Wells never looked at the two other species of wombats—the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) or Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii).
And, as far as we know, no one has studied the speed of these two either.
Alas, the story instead serves as an example of a misquoted figure that got way out of hand.
It has been rounded up, generalised to all species, and taken as a universal capacity of all individuals rather than one or two outliers.
Unless someone has put in the work since, we cannot definitively say how fast wombats are.
PhD thesis anyone?