Did you ever hear the animal “fact” that a wombat could beat the world’s fastest human, Usain Bolt, in a footrace?

Bolt’s world record 100-metre run was completed in 9.58 seconds at an average speed of 37.58 kilometres per hour.

And while Bolt briefly hit just under 44 kph in his best run, a wombat, so we’ve been told, could outpace the Jamaican great at 40 kph over the same distance for a nine-second run.

Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt’s world record is reportedly no trouble for a wombat.(Nick Webb, Usain Bolt, CC BY 2.0 DEED and Big Blue Ocean, wombats, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

But where does this wombat or wombolt fact actually come from?

Two recent dives into the annals of wombat research, one by university researchers and the other by Museums Victoria, came up almost bare.

They couldn’t find a primary source like a study, field observation or research paper to back up the marsupial’s oft-repeated top speed.

This was despite the figure showing up time and time again in animal textbooks.

Now, an exhaustive ABC investigation has tracked down the truth of the 40kph sprinting wombat myth. 

A miscommunication passed down as “fact”

One of the first authoritative sources to claim wombats can sprint faster than most humans was the 1984 edition of zoologist Robert Strahan’s Complete book of Australian Mammals.

The book credited Flinders University ecology and palaeontology professor Rod Wells for a description of the southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), one of the three wombat species, which included a section on their unbelievable pace:

“Although it appears to be a slow, bumbling animal, it is exceedingly alert to the slightest sound or unusual scent and, when disturbed, can run as fast as 40km an hour over short distances.”

There has not been any definitive study undertaken on the top speed of a wombat.(Supplied: Wombat Awareness Organisation)

But when recently contacted by the ABC, Professor Wells said the 40 kph figure didn’t come from his research. It may have stemmed from a 1972 documentary on hairy-nosed wombats.

At the time, Professor Wells was part-way through the first-ever study into the biology of the southern hairy-nosed wombat and provided technical advice to the film’s director-producer Douglas Steen for the script.

Little was known about the species, which some pastoralists treated as vermin, so Professor Wells was on the forefront of studying the behaviours of the chunky marsupial.

In the documentary, narrator Roger Cardwell makes the claim:

“They’ll [wombats] retreat to their warren when they sense danger and quickly at that, their short legs can carry them at more than 25 miles an hour.”

Professor Wells has been researching wombats for decades.(Supplied: Rod Wells)

Professor Wells said the figure (which is the equivalent of  just over 40 kph) might have come about because of a miscommunication with Steen about how fast researchers had driven cars to try and catch wombats for study.

“I think I quoted it … as 25 mph, rather than 25 kph,” Professor Wells said.

“I suspect the pursuit vehicle not the wombat probably accelerated to 25 mph rather than the wombat.

“Watch the film and make your own judgement. Until someone else steps forward I plead guilty to perpetuating this myth.”

Scientists chase down a southern hairy-nosed wombat in South Australia in the 1970s.(The Hairy-Nosed Wombat (1972)/Douglas Steen)

And the academic said he may have “blithely” gone on using the 40 kph figure in subsequent materials.

Professor Wells suggested the confusion might have come down to Australia being in the middle of switching to the metric system, but given this was all 50 years ago it is hard to say what really happened.

Exactly how fast can a wombat run?

So if all our assumptions about wombat speed came from a misquote, the next step was to reach out to the wombat science community for their field notes and first-hand experiences witnessing the agility of the mammals.

Back in the 1970s, scientists caught wombats by chasing them in a car, followed by a foot chase with a comically oversized butterfly net.

These days there are more refined techniques, such as DNA testing, for finding out biological data for wombats, but some people still lace up the running shoes.

A road sign cautioning motorists to drive slower for crossing wombats, and not a speed advisory sign for sprinting wombats.(optische_taeuschung, wombats crossingCC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Australian Wildlife Conservancy acting regional ecologist  Alexandra Ross has spent plenty of time chasing the southern hairy-nosed species at South Australia’s Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuary.

Dr Ross recalled a time she came across a wombat in a car.

“One of them was going full pelt ahead of us on the track one night, but even then I’d only be confident saying it was 20 kph or maybe a bit faster,” she said.

University of Georgia ecology professor Scott Carver has also spent a lot of time in the field loping after a different wombat species, particularly the bare-nosed variety (Vombatus ursinus), around Tasmania.

He is well known in the wombat world for being part of the Ig Nobel winning team which found out why its poop is cube-shaped (because of muscle contractions in their intestines and not due to a square anus).

Professor Carver said he can reach about 20 kph himself on foot so estimated a wombat could do about the same, based on his past escapades with the critter.

“They’re surprisingly fast over short distances,” he said.

“I would think a big wombat at a full sprint would be at around 20 kph or maybe a bit less … 40 kph is a bit faster than I’ve ever seen a wombat show signs of moving.”

And Professor Wells also had a crack at analysing some of the old footage from the 1972 documentary of a sprinting southern-nosed hairy specimen.

“Using my iPhone stopwatch I tried counting the number of bounds of the wombat fleeing for its burrow,” he said.

“At an estimated bound length of 0.9 to 1m it was making around seven bounds a second, around 25 kph.”

Mystery solved, or so we thought …

After contacting several zoos, parks departments, conservation landholders and university researchers, it appeared credible the southern hairy-nosed and bare-nosed wombats could reach a top speed of at least 20 kph. 

But there was one researcher we had not heard back from — a man who could hold the answer to the sprinting wombat mystery.

South Australian wildlife biologist David Taggart has studied the southern hairy-nosed wombat since 1993. In the 2008 and 2024 editions of Strahan’s mammal book, he writes that the southern hairy-nosed species can run at 40 kph.

But he doesn’t write how he knows this to be true. Was he repeating an earlier misunderstanding, or had Dr Taggart witnessed this speed?

For weeks, the ABC’s urgent calls and emails to the biologist went unanswered.

Then, as the minutes ticked down to deadline, the phone rang.

It was Dr Taggart. As it turned out, he’d been doing field work in remote South Australia.

A southern hairy-nosed wombat at Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia.(Supplied: Matt Gaughwin)

Dr Taggart told the ABC he was surprised to learn the 40 kph myth had been “debunked”.

“I thought that’s not a myth it’s true, we’re the ones that measured it,” Dr Taggart said.

“I can confirm that I have clocked this species running at just over 40 kph, although they can’t maintain that for long.

“If we’re running after them, after about 150m they’ll lock up and get tired.”

Dr Taggart said the fact had not been published in a peer-reviewed paper because speed was not really the focus of his research.

“We’re not researching what speed wombats can run, it’s just something we’ve noted as we chase them,” he said.

“We have worked on home range, activity patterns, diet, mange, breeding and reproduction, mapped distribution and much more.”

How animal ‘facts’ get repeated

Regardless of how fast a wombat can run, this whole exercise is a reminder of how the passage of time can separate us from the source of facts. 

We don’t know for sure what exactly led to the 40 kph claim more than 50 years ago.

And speed is not just a controversial area for wombats.

When it comes to kangaroos, the so-called records for different macropod species are all over the shop.

Red kangaroos in Cape Range National Park.(ABC Science: Peter de Kruijff)

An old study from 1971, on the gaits of kangaroo species, included a list of speed claims made in different magazine articles.

One report stated that an unknown kangaroo species bounded at 88 kph for a short distance when pursued by a car.

Elsewhere, the Guinness World Records claims the fastest roo was a female eastern grey which topped out at 64 kph while a male red went 56 kph for a mile before dying from exertion.

Those latter two records are attributed to an unknown source.

With a bit of detective work the most likely origin was Harold Frith and John Calaby’s 1969 book Kangaroos, which includes accounts of catching them by the tail from the bonnet of a pursuing car.

But in this text it was a “blue flyer”, a female red kangaroo, which hopped 64 kph.

University of New South Wales emeritus Professor Terry Dawson, who wrote a different book also called Kangaroos, said when he first started researching the animal he was told by grazier friends it could reach up to 100 kph.

“My observations and measurements indicate that it is actually 55–60 kph,” he said.

“Such speeds seem only to be maintained for a few hundred metres.”

What’s the point of a fast wombat?

Regardless of what exact pace an animal like the wombat can run, for a short stocky creature it sure does move quickly when it has to.

And that raises the question of why it evolved to be so quick.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats, which have been around for about 1 million years, hit the turbo button when under threat.

They tend to graze within a circular area around their burrow.

A common wombat running across a field in Tasmania.(Getty Images: Mlharing)

But after devouring closer vegetation they will venture further out and become more skittish and ready to sprint back to their underground safe havens when startled.

If it’s chased by something like a dingo, the wombat will block off the entrance to its burrow with its incredibly hard bum.

Dingoes have only been around for perhaps the past 12,000 years or so and humans the past 65,000, so wombats may have evolved their speed in response to marsupial megafauna predators like the thylacine.

(Although the thylacine relied on stamina and not speed when hunting.)

There was once a great diversity of wombat species but most of them disappeared towards the end of the late Pleistocene — a time period covering 2.58 million years ago to 11,700 years ago.

The diprotodon, a giant wombat, is one of several prehistoric wombat species which once roamed Australia.(ABC South East SA: Caroline Horn)

Changes in climate, predation and human hunting may have been factors in their demise.

The speed of the three contemporary wombat species may have helped them survive as their slower close cousins went extinct.

Dr Taggart said a wombat’s speed was due to its muscled physique.

“[They] can gallop like a dog or a horse when they have a full head of steam up and can turn on a two-cent piece,” he said.

“I reckon that they can gallop and maintain their top speed for about 50–75 metres before they start slowing down again.

“There is no way in hell anyone could keep up with them when they really take off.”

Asked who he would back in a race between man and marsupial, Dr Taggart answered without hesitation.

“Usain Bolt has nothing on a hairy-nosed wombat.”

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