Museums Victoria has myth-busted your favourite ‘fact’ about wombats
How do we know wombats can run at 40km/h? Turns out, we don’t.
Museums Victoria has debunked everyone’s favourite fact about wombats: that they can run up to 40km/h. This fantastical story is repeated so often – and by reliable sources in news, zoos, and museum websites (including ours, in the past) – but Museums Victoria has confirmed that it is unfounded, with no scientific evidence to support this claim.
The revelation is a reminder of the need for rigorous fact-checking in the information age, and the invaluable role of public research institutions such as Museums Victoria in inspiring learnings about the universe we all inhabit.
The myth-busting mission was taken on by Siobhan Motherway, Manager of the Public Information team, whose interest was piqued by a public query from a man named Tim:
‘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?’ Tim asked.
Siobhan Motherway said, ‘Tim’s seemingly simple question turned into a detective quest across decades, states and disciplines. The role of the Museums Victoria Public Information team is to facilitate curiosity using the museum’s resources, collection and expertise. This story is the essence of why we love our enquirers and illustrates the curiosity they spark in us in kind.’
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 Museums Victoria 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, Siobhan reached out directly to Rod Wells, now Professor Emeritus of Palaeontology at Flinders University, who agreed with our hypothesis that this tiny fragment of his old research has since taken on a life of its own, despite his research never actually claiming the 40km/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. ‘I do not recall anyone using a stopwatch to check their speed. It is more likely that the pursuit vehicle accelerated to 40km/h to catch them. 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,’ Professor Wells concluded.
Siobhan Motherway and the Public Information team further deduced that while Professor Wells’ research related to the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), he never looked at the two other species of wombats—the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) or Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii). As far as we know, no one has studied the speed of these two species either, so we cannot definitively say how fast wombats are.
The wombat speed myth is a light-hearted example of just how easy it is for misinformation to spread, even by accident. This misquoted figure has been rounded up, generalised to all wombat species, and taken as a universal capacity of all individuals rather than one or two outliers. Especially in the digital age where unverified news can be shared over social media in just a few clicks, it’s a reminder for all of us to be vigilant about checking sources.
The work of the Public Information team in using the Museums Victoria library in tracking down a primary reference to Professor Wells’ paper shows the incomparable value of our public libraries and research institutions to public knowledge.
While we can’t say that there’s evidence that wombats can run at 40km/h, there is a lot we do know from scientific studies into these native animal icons. Visitors to Melbourne Museum are invited to learn more about wombats and other modern Australian fauna in the Science and Life Gallery and Museums Victoria Research Institute Gallery, included as part of general museum entry.
For further information visit the Melbourne Museum website.
Science and Life Gallery
Open: 9am to 5pm
Location: Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson Street, Carlton
Tickets: Included in Melbourne Museum entry
Interviews available with:
Siobhan Motherway, Manager, Public Information, Museums Victoria